Bai Lamin Jobe, Minister of Works, Transport and Infrastructure, has granted this paper a rare exclusive interview touching on the plans, policies and projects that the ministry is preoccupied with.
Below is the edited excerpt of the interview:
Hon. Minister, what can you tell us, in a nutshell, about the plans of your ministry to address the many problems with our roads, the Port of Banjul, and even the Banjul International Airport, which we understand, is grossly underutilised?
First, my ministry, like the other ministries under the new government, is presently engaged in a lot of serious firefighting, trying to put out the flames of corruption, nepotism, mediocrity, you name it (as had become the order of government), and trying to put back in place the right systems and processes which best serve the public interest, and not just one person or few people. Unfortunately, there are still many detractors; some joined government when things were really rotten, and they are still a force to reckon with.
Second, my ministry in particular is updating the National Transport and Public Building and Facilities policies, and coming up with a masterplan and portfolio of projects for the next 10 years. Local consultants are assisting us in this exercise, and in this way, they are providing the necessary local context and content. In tandem, we are gearing for rigorous resource mobilisation to finance the infrastructure development of this country. Office of the President, Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, and GIEPA are all assisting in this regard. As we all know, there cannot be economic or social progress without the necessary infrastructure to back these up. The Transport Policy will address the roads, maritime, river transport, and aviation. The Building Policy will address the provision and maintenance of public buildings, the required standards, and other issues.
Third, and very important, we are building the capacity of the ministry so that it can regain its competency as the main technical arm of government. This is in a way reminiscent of the past, when the ministry was totally responsible for roads, not only in Banjul and GBA, but as well in the regions. We are therefore engaged in a vigorous training programme of our staff, both locally and overseas. Also, we are in the process of deploying our technical personnel to the regions.
Hon. Minister,however, there is a growing concern among the public that things are rather slow with the new government, that our roads are in very poor state, that ferry services are barely adequate, and that air travel is very expensive, even up to such close destination as Dakar. What can you say about such criticism, especially concerning your area of responsibility?
These are all valid criticisms, and I will be the first to admit this; but whether they are fair to be made, less than a year of the new government, is debatable. Nonetheless, this is "new Gambia", and what the government needs is a population who are actively demanding for positive changes, and holding the government's feet to the fire, in this regard.
But public infrastructure development (or maintenance) by its nature requires planning, lot of money, and both machinery and manpower resources. However, within this first year, our planning will be finalised, including mobilising of the necessary resources. I am confident that by end of this year to the middle of 2018, we will see a lot of construction activities, addressing many of the critical and priority infrastructure problems you mentioned.
As regards our roads, we plan to construct or maintain, to very high standards, at least 400 kilometres, as a matter of top priority, to be followed by another 600 kilometres, making a total of 1000 kilometres. The plan is to address critical roads in all the regions, connecting our communities to markets, farms, fishing villages, and medical centres. These roads will complement our North and South Bank trunk roads, providing the necessary connectivity to our rural communities.
The negotiation for regularising and expanding the Port of Banjul is advanced, and once finalised will allow more efficient services and income generation for the GPA, not to mention marked reduction of heavy traffic congestion in the city of Banjul. There are also plans to revive river transport, as a matter of the highest priority, to bring down the cost of commodities in the regions, to resuscitate our agricultural and trading centres, and to reduce the cost of road maintenance in the country.
As concerns the Gambia Civil Aviation Authority, various initiatives are being explored to increase air traffic at the Banjul International Airport, to have a national carrier under the Gambia International Airlines (GIA), and to develop various airport facilities, including a free trade zone area. We are negotiating to bring down the cost of air travel to Dakar by domesticating the route. I visited Dakar on this score to meet my counterpart, who arranged for us to meet President Macky Sall during this trip. As far as President Sall was concerned, he wholeheartedly supports any idea that would facilitate close cooperation between the two nations. We look forward to sign this deal by end of this month.
As regards Banjul, my ministry thinks our capital is in a state of severe crisis, and is totally failing to meet its administrative and commercial functions, for lack of adequate infrastructure and services. President Adama Barrow is very concerned, and he has tasked my ministry to find all means possible to address the infrastructure issues, such as the drainage, sewerage, roads, buildings and facilities of the capital city.
As you may know, there is a critical social media against President Barrow's government, recently; there were accusations from a government insider that President Barrow is giving executive directives, just like ex-president Jammeh. Some of these directives concern your ministry, in particular, the construction of the Banjul-Barra Bridge or expansion of the Port of Banjul, given to Chinese companies without competitive bidding. What is your reaction to these accusations?
These claims are grossly unfounded, very sensational, and not helping much in our present situation, other than spreading rumours and making people suspicious and nervous; also, they may be serving the interest of a new breed of detractors cum lobbyists, more concerned with immediate personal gains, rather than solving the crisis situation or, much less, supporting the advancement of the country, for the benefit of all.
Some in the social media believe that they know best how to run our country; others dabble in matters that they apparently have no expertise or right information; but worst are a new breed of home-grown lobbyists who, as the Wolof proverb goes, may not be telling the truth, but are poisoning the minds of people.
For example, the job of the President, as the Chief Executive of the country, is to give his consent for my Ministry, upon our advice among others, to enter into negotiation for mega projects. This is his responsibility and one of the essential functions of his job. The fact that ex-President Jammeh used Executive Orders or EOs to abuse his authority, to commit acts of plunder into state coffers, with so many enablers as are being paraded these days in the public eye, or to declare our country an Islamic State without the consent of the people, do not mean that the instrument of EO is illegal, useless, or inappropriate, whenever issued. Actually, we should pray for a President who comes regularly with sound EO's to expedite the development of this country.
The detractors and lobbyists are giving the impression that the works to improve the Port of Banjul must go through tender. This would have been true if government or the GPA had the money in its own coffers to purchase the necessary works, goods, or services for the Port. But if neither government nor GPA had the money in its coffers, we had to either invite or be approached by possible investors, willing to design, build, and finance such works. This is call Public Private Partnership (PPPs), which could come in many forms, such as BOT, BOOT, EPC, etc.
The existing circumstances for addressing the development of the Port of Banjul is beyond simple tendering, as being alluded. We have Proposers who just want to lease the Port; we have others who want to both develop and lease the Port, and we have yet others who want to develop and facilitate the financing of the Port development. All these proposals have been reviewed, and the new government has decided to choose the latter, which is not to lease out the Port but to select a developer who is bringing in concessionary loan financing. Some of the lobbyist with detractors are obviously quite furious about this.
What last statements do you have for the public regarding your Ministry?
My Ministry is facing a lot of challenges (internal and external), and I am calling on my staff, all of us, to garner the courage to face these challenges and to move ahead, despite the detractors. Not doing the work is not an option. I am confident we will prevail.