Gambia Supreme Court Declares MPs' Personal Loans As Unconstitutional

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The Supreme Court in The Gambia on Tuesday declared as "unconstitutional" a decision by the country's lawmakers to award themselves personal loans from the public purse.

The loans, which amounted to over $1million, were meant for both MPs and parliamentary staff. Proponents of the facility had said it was intended for them to build houses on plots of land given to them by the Executive.

The decision stemmed from a private member Bill that was sponsored by a nominated legislator, Ya Kumba Jaiteh, who is a leading figure of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP).

The controversial move by the National Assembly to amend Gambia's budget last year sparked a major public outcry, partly because of the timing.

The move in November 2020 came less than two years before the end of term of the current legislature, which raised doubts about the ability of MPs to repay their loans.

But for many ordinary Gambians, the MPs' move was inconsiderate as they awarded themselves a financial bailout at a time when the country is going through tough economic times, amids reports widespread corruption in government.

The House was itself divided over the issue, as some members staged a walkout during the voting process, while others abstained from the session altogether.

Two of the country's leading civil society groups - Gambia Participates and the Centre for Research and Policy Development - took the matter to court for interpretation. They demanded that the highest court in the land issue an order preventing disbursement of the loans that were factored into the 2021 national budget.

The litigants argued that it was in contravention of the country's constitution and that it violated the Public Finance Act, 2014. In its ruling, the court agreed and declared that the lawmakers' action amounted to a "usurpation of the Parliament's powers" and "a violation of the National Assembly standing orders." The court also ordered the government to remove it from the budget.

It is not clear if the money had already been disbursed, as an earlier ruling by the same court had rejected the campaigners' request for an injunction to prevent disbursement.

Nonetheless, Sait Matty Jaw, one of the activists who championed the case, described the ruling as "victory for democracy."

"I think this ruling has energised and emboldened civil society to be more proactive, to understand that there are tools that are available for them outside the usual protests or even lobbying that they are doing," he said.

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