Alagi Yorro Jallow

(JollofNews) – The Gambia needs a new caliber of leadership at all levels. What the nation needs is competent and honest politicians, those who operate with integrity and who are not simply driven by vengeance, personal gain, or the desire to remain in office for life.

These political leaders must be judged based on their capability, moral character, and genuine commitment to public service, as well as their ability to uplift the aspirations and demands of the Gambian citizens. It is a tremendous shame that just as it has been through the ages, greed and self-interest has destroyed the country.

Since independence, major corruptions and scandals have plagued the Gambia, with the perpetrators persistently evading punishment. This is despite the Special Criminal Bill that was passed in Parliament in 1979 by the former Attorney General, Momodou Lamin Saho, as well as the Evaluation of Assets and Prevention of Corrupt Practices Bill, shepherded in 1982 by the former Attorney General Fafa M’bai. To regain the public’s confidence in the government’s integrity, the laws on asset declaration in Gambia must be formulated without fear or favor. It is vital that conflicts of interest or illicit enrichment are detected.

The National Assembly has been urged to formulate new legislations, including the Anti-Corruption Commission Bill and the Declaration of Assets Bill, and to pass them into law to enforce transparent asset declaration among politicians holding public office and civil servants in high decision-making positions. The goal is to ensure that the public has confidence in those who hold political office.

The recent revelations that former president Yahya Jammeh amassed over $50 million, held 88 bank accounts in his name (or in those of his associates), was associated with 14 companies, and was accused of taking over successful businesses for his own gain in his 22-year rule have led to fresh calls for the passing of the Declaration of Assets bill and the Anti-Corruption bill before the National Assembly.

The Gambian people have been repeatedly failed, as over the fifty years since independence the country has been unable to combat corruption, making it a generational issue. Gambian political leaders born after independence should enact laws that best work for the next fifty years, building and improving upon the democratic process by combating the cankerworms of corruption in the Gambia by entrenching the law on Public Officers’ Declaration of Assets, Liabilities and Business Interests, and the Anti-Corruption Commission law. These laws are vital to accelerating the Gambia’s growth and competitiveness.

The legacy that most of our political leaders have left is one of greed, selfishness, and impunity, along with a lack of any desire to develop the country or help the people they profess to serve. This is despicable enough, as it hinders the economic growth and development of the Gambia, yet it is more dreadful in that, instead of fighting corruption, these leaders are often deeply engaged in dishonesty and exploitation, unscrupulously using their power to entrench and extend their own greed and continue to plunder the country.

It appears that institutions that are meant to safeguard the Gambia and be watchdogs against corruption (e.g., the judiciary, police, security services, and rule of law) are failing the country, and instead are selectively serving the interests of the elite classes. This is the legacy that the Gambia has inherited from its colonial past, when such institutions were more often subservient to the all-powerful colonial administrator or governor.

Instead of changing colonial era institutions, laws, and values for the better, Gambian ruling parties and leaders continue to entrench the deeply compromised governance systems that have held the country back and against which they fought so much, claiming and promising redemption from such chains. As such, over fifty years after its independence, the Gambia is at a standstill, with greed and self-enriching politics rampant. A centralized political culture highly reminiscent of the colonial administration remains, and it is this refusal to serve the people that is destroying the country from within.

The Gambian people’s social contract should not only be limited to the electoral process, but existing politicians should also be accountable and must transparently declare their assets and liabilities whenever they assume public office. The Gambian people are dying because money meant for healthcare, education, and agriculture is stolen, and hard-earned tax-payer money is misappropriated directly or indirectly by the custodians of our treasury. Rich or poor, male or female, all of us are affected by corruption, but it does not have to be this way. The Gambian people deserve to live in dignity and in progress. We walk forward, not backwards, and as such we are growing as a nation.

Despite the lack of legislation to combat corruption, the public’s perception is that corruption in the government has increased with impunity. Indeed, over the past few years, there has been no significant progress, and the latest report by Transparency International confirms that the Gambia has fallen in the ranking to 145 out of 176.

In many respects, after its Independence the Gambia moved quickly to confront the problem of corruption. However, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) era was inseparable from widespread corruption that took such firm root in the country that ill-gotten gain was flaunted as the norm.

When the Special Criminal Court Bill was tabled in Parliament in 1979, then Attorney General Saho stated: “It is not alarming to say that this country will be destroyed if this cancer [of corruption] is not arrested now.” He continued to state that he made “no apologies for this Bill,” adding that “No stone would be left unturned in the fight to protect the interest of the public from the rapacious mafia within our society.” In 1980, the view was expressed by one Member of Parliament that “more stringent measures such as hand amputation ought to be introduced” to stem the tide of runaway corruption. In an address to accounting personnel of the government in July 1980, a Parliamentary Secretary suggested, according to the Gambia News Bulletin, that embezzlers should be punished by firing squad (Justice Jallow,2012).

It was in this climate of mass disaffection with the PPP government that Kukoi emerged in 1981, and in which Fafa M’bai, Attorney General in 1982, shepherded the Evaluation of Assets and Prevention of Corrupt Practices Bill, which on 31st December 1982 became Act No. 17 of that year. We know what happened to Fafa and his Act when the “rapacious mafia” went to work on him. It is not even persuasive to contend that the “society” perceived “the exercise as being manipulated and used as a political weapon targeted principally against the urban elite of a particular ethnic group.” (Justice Jallow,2012).

Corruption has scarred nearly all aspects of life in the Gambia, and all too frequently it is the middle-level officials who are caught and scapegoated, whilst the so-called “big fish” continue to go unpunished. Until the system forces these upper echelons to be accountable for their actions, the public will continue to perceive that things have not improved.

While the main aim of the Declaration of Assets is to prevent corruption, it is also designed to increase transparency and the trust of the public administration, to prevent conflicts of interest and illicit enrichment, to avoid false accusations of wealth, and to monitor the wealth of politicians and public servants. These are valid demands because such individuals hold great power over the allocation of national resources, and their salaries are paid through the public tax contribution.

The Declaration of Assets shall be regulated by the Constitution and, in accordance with international standards, it shall require the President and members of his/her cabinet to disclose fully all their assets, liabilities, and business interests and those of their spouses held by them or on their behalf. Such a disclosure should occur no later than three months from the date of the election or appointment. However, by changing the law to require the declaration to also be made at the end of the term of office will facilitate greater accountability.

The bill can be added by amending the Constitution to provide, in very general terms, for the verification of declarations and enacting new legislation to establish a detailed framework of rules and sanctions relating to non-declaration, verification of declarations, and the legal consequences of any breaches of constitutional and statutory obligations on the Declaration of Assets.

Strengthening the law, in and of itself, cannot guarantee that public funds will not be looted and spirited away by holders of political office and public servants. Gambians also need to take political action, in part by strengthening the powers of the National Assembly and its committees to summon and question the President and other public officials and servants about any suspicious acquisition or accumulation of wealth. We also need to strengthen the protection of investigative journalists, media houses, and whistleblowers because of their vital role in exposing and publicizing the theft of public resources.

Gambian citizens should have the right to view the financial disclosures of all public officials and employees, as well as their spouses and children who are minors or unmarried and living in their households. As such, the Anti-Corruption Commission will publish the financial disclosures of many of the highest ranking public officials in the government gazette.

The periodic public disclosure of personal assets would help to ensure that unexplained wealth, especially ill-gotten gains, do not go unnoticed. The government of President Adama Barrow has conducted a spate of probes into the corruption of Yahya Jammeh, and the string of corruption cases indicates a serious and alarmingly routine abuse of power and misconduct by public officials. This points to serious structural flaws in the system that have allowed these loopholes to be manipulated for massive fraud and the swindling of public funds. This issue has been plaguing the Gambia’s growth and competitiveness.

Declaring assets behind doors, which is what occurred in the Gambia under previous governments, no longer suffices, as it reeked of secrecy and opacity instead of promoting transparency and honesty. Asset declarations should be accessible to the public as part of their right to know and be informed, instead of being made only internally within the government.

Studies show that an asset declaration open to public scrutiny is a way for the public to ensure leaders do not abuse their power for personal gain. Published information on a person’s assets allows a civil society to hold its leaders to account. Making a public declaration of assets is an effective anti-corruption tool.

While the Declaration of Assets should be done periodically and kept on record by an effective independent body, it is also appropriate to have forensic accounting experts and investigators monitor the assets periodically. An asset profiling system should be introduced to determine what assets personnel are expected to have, based on their positions, years of service, and their present and past emoluments.

The Gambian society needs to bolster the campaign on enactment of the Declaration of Assets and the Anti-Corruption bills to build a public understanding of the debilitating effects of corruption in society. To ensure the well-being of the nation, such enactments must be undertaken in a courageous and impartial fashion. All too often, anti-corruption voices are themselves deemed to be tainted and lacking in impartiality.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow

Mr Jallow is founder and former managing editor of The Independent, the Gambia’s only private newspaper before it was banned by the government in 2005. He was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, a 2007 Nieman fellow and is the author of Delayed Democracy: How Press Freedom Collapsed in Gambia published in 2013.