By Kebba Jeffang
Gambian President Adama Barrow has stressed that civil servants must exercise patience on salary and pension increments as the economy is being fixed. In this ‘One on One’ exclusive interview with Foroyaa held at the State House on January 24th, the President discusses finance, national security, and youth unemployment.
Foroyaa: Mr. President, congratulations on your first year anniversary.
President Barrow: Thank you Mr. Jeffang once again.
Foroyaa: The Finance Minister during budget speech, said your administration had inherited a D56 Billion debt. How are you working to shrink this huge amount?
President Barrow: That is a very staggering issue. It’s about 120 to 125% of our GDP. That is very serious. But I think for the past one year, we have worked very hard to see that we stabilize our economy. Donors like the World Bank, European Union and other institutions have helped us to stabilize our economy in the form of grants and budget support. We inherited less than one month import cover, today we have four months import cover. That is very good. The lending rates also has gone down. Borrowing has gone down. Combined, this is helping our economy because it has gone down by 12%. Also our income has increased because the traffic at the port has increased and the revenue has also increased. I think we are on the right track.
Foroyaa: There are two projects for youth currently. The 11M Euros Youth Empowerment Project YEP and the 3.9 M Euros IOM project. These projects are meant to address the youth unemployment burden in the country. Taking into consideration that in every 12 years, the school systems according to the department of education’s statistic, produce 400, 000 students. What is government’s own commitment for youth in this country?
President Barrow: If you look at our statistics, about 60 to 65% Gambians are youth. That means we have the man power and that is fundamental. I think there is future for this country. As far as this government is concerned, this youth matter is top in our agenda and we are really committed to creating jobs for these youths to win their confidence. So the mind sets will change so that they can stay and work to develop the country.
Foroyaa: But how?
President Barrow: That’s why we have created the environment so that the private sector can contribute in creating jobs. The environment is freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary which has created the environment for people to invest in this country. If you look around now, in this country, there are a lot of new arrivals. There are a lot of new businesses that are emerging in this country and they are creating jobs. Right now, in the construction sector, even to get a mason will take time because a lot of people have confidence and have started building. When I travelled to China, I had a very good meeting with the Chinese president that the main backbone of this country used to be farming. But now for the past years, because of climate change, it has affected the farming and irrigation sector and we don’t have the knowledge. We don’t have the money but we have the man power, the land, the market and we need to partner with China on irrigation. Partnership with China so that they can bring experts and the finance and we go in for irrigation. This irrigation is a yearly thing and if we are really serious in this area and we are seriously partner with those developed countries, I can tell you, we can create a lot of jobs. We can grow the economy and the area of food security. We will do very well in that area. We are also encouraging tourism to be on an yearly basis. It used to be six months or half yearly and this year I cannot give you statistic but we have created jobs as far as tourism is concerned and we are expecting more hotels coming up next year. Even FTI, they are ready to construct two new hotels and those if I don’t forget, will have 10, 000 beds and these are areas where we can really create jobs.
Foroyaa: Many People expected that your administration will improve the general welfare in terms of earnings. Take the civil servants into consideration, who are poorly paid and vulnerable to corruption. Are there plans to increase salaries and pension allowances?
President Barrow: Managing a government is a system and a process. You have to start from somewhere and get to somewhere. Stabilizing the economy, reducing the lending rate, increasing our income, I think that will balance our books. Maybe sometime in next year, we will think of increasing but as at now we have to look at the situation of the economy. We have to face the reality.
Foroyaa: Are you asking for patience from civil servant?
President Barrow: They have to exercise patience. Hands on deck. ‘In Sha Allah,’ I think we can turn the corner.
Foroyaa: But your administration has discovered an amount of D187 Million after your staff audit that indicated the presence of ghost workers. Is it not wise to put this money and address the conditions of civil servants in terms of salary?
President Barrow: That is true. But if you look at our debt burden, we want to bring that down because it represents 70% of GDP. That is the time they will consider you for other loans. Without that you are above the ceiling. And we are working very hard to reduce the debt to that percentage. That will put you in a very stronger position. It will create that freedom and we will have the support of the IMF. We are working with the IMF because the IMF is the gate way. You cannot do these things without the confirmation of the IMF because they know what you can do and what you cannot do and we want to be on the same wave-length with the IMF.
Foroyaa: Mr. President, the general expectation before you came to power was, there will be national unity. You should unify the country against differences in political affiliation, religion, gender, ethno-linguistic or any form of discrimination. Are you confident that we are on the right track taking into consideration the recent incidents in Busumbala and Mankamang-Kunda, your home village?
President Barrow: That is why yesterday, I spelt it out clearly that business cannot be as usual, (referring to his meeting with civil servants). If the business remains so, the purpose of our new government will be defeated. No doubt, I think everybody has seen that at the top level, the political will is there. Twenty-two years is not a short period. It will take time but because the political will is there, it is very possible to make it and I think we are on the right track because we are creating that environment for people to feel that they are secured and they have that freedom. I think it is very clear.
Foroyaa: One key message you have been carrying along during your campaign was the promise of transparency and accountability. Vehicles were donated to national assembly members and no clear explanation was given regarding how they were acquired. Can you elaborate on this matter?
President Barrow: I think this message was very clear. I was not there to give the message but it was given through my Minister of Tourism. I think the message was clear. When we were going into politics, we had people who were there to support us. During the transition process, we get support from people, from business individuals who supported us. There is no political person who doesn’t have a financier or somebody who supports them. Based on those people who were supporting us, we appealed to them that our National Assembly members, some of them use ‘gele geles’ and some of them will stand on the road side to beg for lift. When we were having our campaign, it was the same people who supported us and their interest is to support The Gambia. It is based on that that we want them to continue helping our country because they have the country at heart.
Foroyaa: Are you going for five years or three years as agreed?
President Barrow: That is left to The Gambian people.
President Barrow: (LOL)……..Well I think The Gambian people have a very important say as far as our period in office is concerned. We were few parties that came together in a room and decided something. But I think if you look at things in a wider context, you cannot look at it in a narrow context. You have to look at it in a wider context and that is, is the Gambian people who are important. Let see what the Gambian people will say.
Foroyaa: Women constitute more than half of the population but remain the lowest in the rank of the economic ladder. If you visit Serekunda market today, you find their vegetables rotten due to lack of proper storage or processing facilities. Others in the field (agriculture) lack fertilizer, good road networks and storage facilities. Tell me are there plans in place to address the constraints?
President Barrow: We have been discussing with a lot of investors in this area especially with mangoes and other perishable products. We have a lot of investors who want to invest in these areas. There is a lot of talk going on as to what certain quantity we produce. We want to create the market for the women and in this thing, you have to get people who are very serious, who have contacts, knowledge and the money. We are discussing with a lot of people who are interested in this area and we will end up creating a very good market for them.
Foroyaa: Thank you for your time Mr. President.
President Barrow: It’s a pleasure.