(JollofNews) – President Adama Barrow of the Gambia has used his address at the state opening of the country’s National Assembly to renew his pledge to jealously guard and preserve the freedom and dignity of his people.
Mr Barrow who succeeded former long-term ruler, Yahya Jameh in January whose regime is accused of committing gross right violations, said the Gambia will never again return to those dark days of impunity, obvious disregard for constitutional order or be globally isolated.
Addressing members of the National Assembly in Banjul on Monday, the president said: “I stand before you with great humility today at this historic opening of our National Assembly in the era of the ‘New Gambia.’
Together, we have ushered the New Gambia into a world of hope – a world we shall jealously guard to preserve the freedom and dignity of our people. Never again shall this nation return to those dark days of impunity, obvious disregard for constitutional order or be globally isolated. This is an achievement that we should not take lightly. I thank Allah for this blessing and also seek his continued guidance and strength to serve you well in the coming years.
The spirit of unity that brought us last December’s historic election outcome continues to drive the nation forward, which is evident in the business of our new Cabinet. Indeed, we see this spirit of unity every day across the nation as we strive together to build the New Gambia that we want and deserve.
The most important achievement so far is the peaceful transition of power to our new democracy. This short period has seen the inauguration of a President, the appointment of a new Cabinet and the election of a new National Assembly.
My fellow Gambians
You have elected the government that you want, and we have taken your expressions of goodwill and your desire for peace and prosperity seriously. We have thus begun the task of steadily reforming the government machinery so it can do the work of nation building and help strengthen our new found democracy that we have wanted for so long.
I want to offer my thanks to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, and all our international partners for their invaluable support in this historic transition. They too have worked with us in the spirit of unity and cooperation to serve the New Gambia.
They have all moved swiftly to help stabilise this nation through support with security and human and financial resources. I know we can count on their continued support particularly to overcome the dire financial situation that we inherited. But ultimately, we Gambians must forge our way along the path of democracy and prosperity. I am proud to say that we are already well on our way in these first few months of our administration.
We have got a lot to do in 2017 and beyond and as I have always said, this is going to be a government of action. Our immediate priority is to fix the continuous energy problem as well as the broken economy, unify the nation, improve health and agricultural sub-sectors, end the country’s isolation and introduce robust institutional, electoral and constitutional reforms in line with our new democratic principles that will respond to the realities of our time. This has to be done in tandem with reforms in the Civil Service and security sector as well as State Owned Enterprises.
A Peaceful Transition
Our most important achievement so far is the peaceful transition of power to this new democracy. As mentioned earlier, we are indebted to ECOWAS, the AU, the UN, the EU, the World Bank, the IMF and other international partners for their support. They have all moved quickly to help stabilise our country with the help of security, human and financial resources.
As the saying goes charity begins at home, so we must acknowledge that we Gambians are to be commended for initiating the change that brought us the New Gambia. We shall continue to build our country together.
Justice and Judiciary
While we have restored some of the key democratic institutions, the pursuit of justice remains a high priority for my government. Indeed, we still have a lot to do despite the progress made so far. Over 500 prisoners have been pardoned and we have delivered on our promise to decongest prisons by releasing political and other deserving reformed prisoners.
A Criminal Case and Detention Review Panel has also been established to enquire into all criminal proceedings against current and former public officers and the panel has uncovered cases linked to political activity, and persons remanded and awaiting trial. We have recently and carefully concluded the work on the setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to look into the financial and business-related activities of the former President and his associates. The members of the Commission chaired by Surahata Semega Janneh have been announced and the Commission will start work shortly.
Additionally, our Judiciary has been ‘Gambianised’ with the appointment of a Gambian Chief Justice and six Superior Court justices.
We also held a successful National Stakeholders’ Conference on Justice and Human Rights in May and the forum provided a unique opportunity for inclusive dialogue and consultations on key justice sector reforms, including plans for the setting up of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
My government has received and continues to benefit from genuine and solid support provided by the UN in the area of transitional justice and the setting up of this Commission.
Security and Defence
In the area of security and defence, we are grateful for the support of the ECOWAS Mission in the Gambia. The ECOMIG forces were especially instrumental in helping to secure our democratic transition. The government is working on reforming the security sector which is closely linked to the delivery of justice and the restoration of our free and fair democracy.
Gone are the days of armed security personnel representing the face of government. The Gambian Armed Forces are now confined to their military barracks. Members of the former State Guard Battalion have been redeployed to other units, and the armed forces are now disengaged from civilian matters. It is also important to note that arms and ammunitions have been stored in safe locations.
We must, however, applaud our gallant Armed Forces, who have been receptive to the normalisation of their role in the state, and have conducted themselves with maximum professionalism. They continue to play a critical role in keeping our nation safe and secure, and deserve our unconditional support and respect as they carry out their professional duties.
To ensure that our military remain effective and professional, we plan to set up an infantry centre and school, as well as a military academy to train our officers and other personnel in all aspects of military science.
The former National Intelligence Agency, now the State Intelligence Service, has been restructured to focus on its core activity of intelligence gathering and analysis to ensure the safety and security of us all.
Information and Communications
In the area of information and communications, we have taken concrete steps to review oppressive media laws, to ensure freedom of the press and freedom of expression. These are founding pillars of any strong democracy, and my government has moved quickly to reinstate three private radio shows that were illegally shut down. All these efforts will enhance the quality, the scope and the openness of information, news and the media throughout our country. It is reassuring to now hear and see debates on divergent views expressed freely on radio, on television and in our newspapers.
In one of my recent cabinet meetings we agreed, as an immediate priority, on the need to put in place a communications strategy that will facilitate regular communication and engagements with the public. New communications measures have been introduced to include regular press briefings by the media team at the Office of the President, by the Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure, and bi-annual news conferences by myself.
Turning to the energy sector, let me start by restating the urgency that I attach to resolving the power supply issues across the nation. Electricity is power – the power to support education and learning, the power to run life-saving health facilities, and the power for businesses to create jobs and grow the economy.
I came into office to find significant challenges in the energy sector, as is evident in frequent power outages. Electric power is one of the most basic services that people need for a decent quality of life, and the lack of it greatly affects the net national productivity and lives of the people.
To meet these challenges and tackle our acute power shortage, my government has made it a priority from day one, to work with international partners, investors and developers to attract investments in the energy sector.
Some of the negotiations are at a very advanced stage. We recently signed an agreement for a new 60-megawatt power plant, which will more than double the current generation capacity in the country. It will deliver adequate and stable electric power supply in the whole of the Greater Banjul Area. I am also happy to report that the proposal to acquire electricity from our sister Republic of Senegal is well advanced.
It is worthy to note that this cross-border connection is a short-term measure to boost the energy supply, especially in the rural areas.
Regarding the petroleum sub-sector over the past 22 years, Gambians have either been left in the dark or seriously misinformed about petroleum prospects.
My government will be transparent and honest about the state of petroleum, and should there be positive results, we are committed to governing the sector with total transparency and accountability.
Exploration and research are at an advanced stage, and while we are hopeful, we must wait for the process of exploration to take its course.
Trade and Foreign Affairs
By exercising your democratic right last December, you helped us usher in a new Gambia that is more open to the world and a better neighbour within our region. We now have a country that will benefit from greater openness through international trade and tourism.
Since my inauguration, it is clear that the world appreciates The Gambia and wants to engage with us. We have already seen an increase in the volume of cargo at the Port of Banjul as well as a rise in vehicular traffic using the ferry services. Furthermore, there has been a clear boost in the flock of new investors exploring opportunities in our country.
We have also been honoured with many visits by foreign dignitaries from the EU, the UN, the UK and from our own ECOWAS neighbours. I have equally been humbled by invitations from fellow world leaders.
The Gambia has begun the process of rejoining the Commonwealth, and reaffirmed our membership to the International Criminal Court. We have welcomed the decision by ECOWAS to extend ECOMIG’s tenure, all of which demonstrates our commitment to embrace regional and global institutions in the name of open and collaborative international relations.
Relations with our neighbour Senegal have been transformed positively. We now meet as strategic partners who recognise the mutual benefit of closer cooperation. Within the first 100 days of our period in office, our countries signed several key agreements on defence and security, tourism, fisheries and consular assistance.
As a small economy, The Gambia has much to gain from more efficient trade across our borders with Senegal and beyond. Going forward, my Cabinet and I will work to make the most of these opportunities, to boost our economy and create jobs for Gambians.
Already, the National Assembly ratified a crucial World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade facilitation agreement. This is an agreement that will make The Gambia a more attractive export destination for our trading partners. I am proud to announce that my Minister of Trade has since signed a letter of agreement with China for duty free trade between our two nations.
This will remove the need for costly trans-shipment of Gambian exports to China through a third country. It will also make our goods more competitive, and boost our export potential to the world’s largest market.
A legal metrology bill will soon be brought to the floor of the National Assembly. The bill will, among other things, address consumer protection relevant to legal metrology functions.
International Financial Affairs and Public finances
Fellow Gambians, my government took office to discover that the Treasury was virtually empty and domestic and foreign debts at an all-time high. The foreign reserve at the Central Bank was less than one month import cover, and the economic and governance situation had become so bad that our international development partners had deserted us.
To address this crisis, my government in January 2017 developed the Accelerated National Response Plan which seeks technical and financial support from our development partners to help mitigate the economic and fiscal crisis in the short-term.
We are grateful to our international partners, who have responded swiftly and continue to respond to this call for support.
The European Union has made a significant financial commitment. It is disbursing frozen funds and committing new funds to support the development agenda of the New Gambia. The World Bank has already provided vital emergency budget support and we are in the final stages of concluding a Rapid Credit Facility Agreement with the IMF who have agreed to a staff monitored programme to stabilise the economy and public finances. This will include the reform of public enterprises such as the National Water and Electricity Corporation, (NAWEC) and telecommunications entities GAMTEL and GAMCEL.
In order to take full advantage of the impending financial and economic opportunities, we need to prepare our youth today for a vibrant labour force tomorrow. After all, the bedrock of our country’s very existence is our youth. This is why the Ministry of Youth and Sports is tasked to create various capacity and employment initiatives to enable our young people to form the much-needed human capital that will drive the country’s development agenda.
In our first 100 days, a new Youth Empowerment Project initiative supported by the EU was launched at the Ministry of Trade, Industry, Regional Integration and Employment. The objective of this project is to improve the skills of potential youth workers and prepare them, especially returning young migrants for the labour market.
Through the President’s International Award Scheme, 60 youths were recently enrolled to undergo skills training in a range of technical and vocational areas like auto-mechanics, carpentry and secretarial work.
It is encouraging to note that the National Youth Council coordinates the civic education programme. This is aimed at mobilising our youth to participate in politics, and to assume their rightful role in the country’s development process. The Council has helped craft a youth agenda for government’s consideration, and is working closely with the International Organisation for Migration to support returnees and potential migrants to acquire livelihood skills in horticulture and poultry.
The Council is also helping young people in Busumbala, Baddibu Salikenni, and Kuntaur to acquire skills in poultry farming. Similarly, it is helping young people in Wuli to acquire skills in horticulture.
These capacity building initiatives also sensitise young people to the dangers of illegal migration to Europe.
In agriculture, we expect to make critical development gains from improving the skills of our youth and encouraging them to participate in agriculture. At the moment, agricultural productivity is low, and this limits the benefits to the nation in terms of jobs, livelihoods and government revenue.
In addition to youth training, the Ministry of Agriculture has begun a programme of support to farmers and farming businesses to improve seed input, modernise cropping and ploughing techniques, and enhance planning in the face of climate change and other hazards to agriculture. Already, vegetable seeds have been distributed to 11,200 farmers as well as 22,500 kilogrammes of rice seeds to intensify rice production. High quality fertilizer and groundnut seeds have also been made available to farmers at subsidised prices.
As well as maximising the economic potential of our agricultural sub-sector, we have begun to develop fisheries as a source of food security, jobs and economic growth.
During the first 100 days of my Presidency, the Ministry of Fisheries, Water Resources and National Assembly Matters and the Ministry of Justice reviewed the country’s 2008 fisheries regulations to make it more relevant to our current realities.
Considering that our industrial fisheries sector has been dormant for over twenty years, we expect that the amendment of these regulations will contribute to the sustainable conservation and management of the fisheries sector. It will also enhance food security for all Gambians and contribute to poverty reduction through employment creation.
Our historic political transition took place during the peak of the tourist season. Tourism contributes significantly to GDP and it is a critical source of employment and government revenue, as tourists are naturally drawn to our warm and friendly shores.
We have begun to re-engage our key markets but we still have a lot to do to sell our New Gambia brand to the world. We intend to realise the full potential of tourism as a source of employment, livelihoods and prosperity for our nation.
The implementation of new strategies to enhance culture, tradition and the arts as channels for new tourist inflows is already underway. The major craft markets at Bungalow Beach Hotel and Fajara Hotel have already been upgraded.
Community-based tourism endeavours, such as the one in Ndemban in the West Coast Region, have been developed with the support of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
Environment and climate change
In support of environmental protection and tourism in the country, my government has put in place the right policies and programmes to protect our environment and combat the effects of climate change.
In our first 100 days, we reversed an executive order of the previous government to destroy the forest park in Bijilo with the construction of a hotel on the park grounds. We have normalised the environmental impact assessment process with clear guidelines in accordance with due process, with full transparency, to give investors more confidence in the system.
My government will continue to monitor to ensure that existing investors respect the agreed guidelines to protect our environment.
My government has also mobilised additional resources to support environmental protection. We have re-engaged with the Global Environment Facility and we will access US$6 million that had previously been withheld.
The Forestry Bill 2017, which seeks to put in place the necessary legal framework for the management of our forest resources, will come to this Assembly shortly for enactment. We shall enforce it rigorously to protect and preserve our already degraded and vulnerable forest cover. This is necessary, not only to preserve our precious natural resources, but also to mitigate against the adverse effects of climate change.
Within the first 100 days of my government, we have made important progress in expanding access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation in rural areas.
On the 9th of April, with a grant from the Saudi Fund for Development, my government signed a contract for the construction of 25 drilled wells, equipped with solar pumps. The contract also provides for 25 elevated water tanks, and associated water distribution systems. This US$6 million project will improve water supply in rural areas by providing safe drinking water with easy to operate systems.
In March 2017, the Department of Water Resources completed the construction of 950 ventilated improved pit latrines out of a planned 1,000 nationwide. The Ministry is currently installing tanks, laying water pipes and building pre-cast tap stands in various communities across the country.
Many of these facilities are either complete or nearing completion. At the end of this project, over 65,000 people in rural areas will have access to safe drinking water and 44,000 will have access to improved toilet facilities.
Improvements to water quality are linked to health outcomes across the country. Alongside providing people with safe drinking water and sanitation, my government, through the Ministry of Health, is scaling up its efforts to improve our health delivery systems, especially for women and children. As a first step, we have obtained additional assets to support primary health care provision in the country. This includes 800 pedal bicycles and 29 motorbikes for Village Health Workers and Community Health Nurses across the country’s seven health regions.
I am pleased to report that the World Bank has approved US$7 million in additional funding for the Maternal and Child Health as well as the Nutrition Result Project. My government has also submitted a proposal to the EU to enhance food security. We would welcome their support to help us treat acute malnutrition and prevent all forms of under-nutrition.
With more than 95 percent coverage, we are also getting support from the Global Alliance for Vaccine Initiative (GAVI) to help us consolidate our strong track record on child immunisations. This project, estimated at US$4.6 million will help strengthen and enhance our immunisation systems.
For basic and secondary education, I am proud to say we have reached agreement with development partners for over US$50 million worth of investment to expand and improve education for our next generation.
With the help of the Kuwaiti Fund, we are upgrading 39 upper basic and senior secondary schools. This will see the building of additional classrooms, the rehabilitation of existing ones, as well as information technology and solar power solutions. We will install new furniture and educational facilities in our schools, including science laboratories, and there will be a new teaching curriculum. With support from the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Education, we are building on existing programmes to enhance access to quality basic education, including early childhood education.
Administration and Civil Service
While initiating our policy and reform agenda, we have also been reforming ourselves within government. We inherited a highly politicised regional administrative system. It was presided over by governors who owed their allegiance to the APRC.
Offices of regional governors were being run more as political bureaus rather than serving the grassroots within their localities. As such, scarce national resources were being used for political propaganda activities.
To improve governance and stop wasting resources, my government appointed five new governors, whose terms of reference clearly exclude them from engaging in partisan politics. We have encouraged them to follow proper civil service conduct, which embodies neutrality and impartiality in performing their functions.
In normalising the civil service, we have established a panel to review the wrongful dismissal of civil servants and other government officials between September 1997 and December 2016. Since its creation, the panel has cleared over 100 employees, allowing them to be reinstated. At the same time, the civil service has expanded rapidly by over 40 percent since 2007. Consequently, almost half of the government budget is spent on civil service wages and benefits.
This not only limits government’s ability to provide the necessary budget to improve the socio-economic status of its citizens, but also makes it difficult to improve the salary of civil servants. This is one of the key challenges in attracting and retaining skilled professionals.
In response, my government has tasked the Personnel Management Office to conduct a comprehensive nationwide staff audit for the entire civil service. This began on the 27th of March 2017. For the first time, this audit included the security forces – the Army, Police, Immigration, Prisons, Fire and Rescue Service, and the State Intelligence Service.
The objectives of the audit exercise include the identification and elimination of ghost workers, the recovery of wrongful salaries and the updating of personnel records.
Let me proudly acknowledge the support that my government received from our UN partners in the area of administrative reform. During this transition period, the UN System has provided support to strengthen government capacity and they have been assisting us in the formulation of our National Development Plan, as well as security sector reform.
It is also important to report that as part of the reform, my own office which was directly coordinating and supervising a huge number of public enterprises and other state agencies under the former government has been de-congested and those institutions streamlined with their line ministries.
While we have taken this opportunity to reflect on how far we have progress as a nation in just a few short months, let us not be mistaken, we have a huge long-term task ahead.
This includes but not limited to:
- Continuing to rebuild and nurture our young democracy for inclusive socio-economic development;
- Providing economic opportunities for all; and
- Reforming the institutions of government to ensure improved service delivery for our people.
These tasks are not without challenges, but I am confident that none of them are impossible to overcome. I am happy and privileged to have this great opportunity to lead our great nation to prosperity. But we must learn from the experience of others.
We must be disciplined, follow the plan and stay committed to that plan. So in pursuing our vision for the New Gambia, my government will continue to focus our time and resources on a clear agenda. We shall create a foundation on which future progress will be built.
I commit to you to pursue this agenda with greater transparency and accountability – more than ever before. I will continue to update you on progress throughout the year. This is a new government and a new era, and as your President, I am here to serve the Gambian people.
And now, by the powers vested in me as President, it is my pleasure and privilege to declare this historic session of our National Assembly in the new Gambia formally open.”