Ousman Sillah, National Assembly Member for Banjul North: Thank you very much honourable Speaker. The Minister of Finance was before this august Assembly and we expressed sympathy that this is the first time that the executive of this new dispensation is presenting its budget before us. But that come 2019 and during the course of 2018, we assume that the honeymoon, so to speak, would be coming to an anti-climax. So we are expecting to be really engaging the executive in performing our oversight role.
In fact during this current session, important landmarks occurred here in terms of constitutional matters. The National Assembly has now removed section 91 (1) (d) from the Constitution. So there is no excuse now for the National Assembly members from abdicating their responsibility. There is no hindrance, no consideration of any backlash for speaking your mind, for representing the people or for not praise-singing. Now we are entirely free to be truly representing the Gambian people in this august institution. So this is a positive development and one of the most important developments that had taken place in this Assembly. If the National Assembly has the power to remove a President or a Minster of State, then who should also remove National Assembly Members from misrepresentation? I think the focus I would urge my colleagues on now, is to start working on that constitutional provision to give effect to section 92 so that the electorate will also take us to task and to sanction us for misrepresentation. I hope consultations would start to make it an all-party issue so that we give effect to section 92 which will further enrich our democracy. We must be held accountable as we are holding others accountable.
The Minister of Finance, of course on behalf of the President, presented a budget before us and which we approved and a lot of debate had taken place in terms of the allocations. Some areas are found to be under-resourced and there were some concessions, though some were marginal. But we expecting, as has been said, that we will be effectively performing our oversight functions to ensure that 2018 is different from 2017 and previous years. As a National Assembly, as a whole house and in our respective select committees, we will be ensuring that the people are really served.
In the health budget, we noticed that the commitment made by the government as per the international covenant or agreement i.e. the Abuja Declaration, which is asking Governments in Africa to be committing a minimum of 15% of their local funds, is still far short of the target and is under 10%.
During our rounds as the health select committee to the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital, the chief executive put it mildly to us. He was telling us that we can be advocating when we meet representatives of foreign countries in The Gambia that if anything would happen to anyone of them here, as you know that accidents are not by design and do occur beyond our control, the last place to be taken before evacuation is the Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital which is the main referral hospital. But this facility is in a dire state. It lacks the most basic of equipment. The equipment and medication that is needed to stabilize someone who is on the verge of being evacuated are really lacking in the facility. So I would urge Government to do everything possible to ensure that this 15% is provided. If we can get this 15%, we should ensure that it will not be going to buy vehicles or spent on none essential or prestigious things. It should be a 15% that goes to boost the morale of the health staff or hospital workers, buy adequate and quality drugs and equipment. This is the 15% I am talking about. And the assurance is that if we can get this then we would have taken a major stride in our health delivery system. We will really see the difference as this is going to be a leap. So I am therefore urging all the members of the executive to be consulting and convincing themselves to ensure that this 15% is given to the sector. And this should not only concern representatives of foreign governments but members of the National Assembly and the Executive because if emergencies occur, we may need the facility. Now that the allocations are done, we are going to be appealing to anyone but ensuring through our oversight functions that the right things are done and are in place, of course within the limits of the resources that are made available.
Like I said before, landmark developments have taken place here in terms of constitutional matters. The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) bill was passed by the National Assembly. The Constitutional Review Commission bill was also passed here. Of course, they are not yet laws as they are to be assented to by the President. But we are hoping that all the bills that have passed here will be assented to in order for them to become part of the laws of the country and for the commissions to be operational.
However, I would want the honourable Attorney General and Minister of Justice to bear in mind that just as had happened with the commission probing the former president, we can see that it is extensive. Some might have thought that it was going to be concentrated on only few people but we can see that a lot of people are appearing before it. So the TRRC is going to be the same and we must brace ourselves as a nation to ensure that is something that is going to help us in the healing process and ensure that there is truth, justice and reconciliation. So we need to engage the media to sensitise the population and tell all what these things are about. We have to start doing that now. Let us brace the country and prepare the population by putting in place what I would call ‘shock absorbers’ so that they will be able to absorb any shock. In fact, it should not lead to a breakdown. It would end up holding the country intact. There is need for sensitization and that there is no witch hunting but just the truth and justice at the end of the day. So that is what I am asking the Attorney General and Minster of Justice to take note of.
Of course, we are talking about laws. I am a media practitioner by profession and I have seen the honourable Minister for Information and Communication Infrastructure in chamber but I don’t know what is holding the media reform law from being presented before this august Assembly. We are really looking forward to it. I for one I’m really looking forward to it to see speech decriminalised. There should be freedom of speech as we are talking about democracy and a new dispensation but once the bad laws are there they are a harbinger or a threat unless removed. I was in fact expecting the media law reform bill to be brought here before the end the year. I’m not sure whether they are waiting for the Constitutional Review Commission but it will be too late if that is the case. I understand that there were some consultations on the matter but we are really expecting it. We need a law that is going to make speech free and also for the public broadcaster to be made open to divergent views. Anything that is dealing with the state such as information should be made accessible including the platforms. So honourable minister we are expecting that and I would give it my full support.
On Local Government, the honourable minister was here. He also informed us that there is a company that was given a contract for 25 years to be managing the waste in this country. In fact, I asked that we really want to have access to the contract documents to see as the process was not transparent because the tender was not made public. I asked if we could be given the document but the Minister said that he is not sure whether the document could be made public but would be making consultations on it. But as an Assembly we definitely should have access to the document to see the pros and cons. We need waste management as it has a lot of advantages such as environmental and economic advantages, employment creation, providing energy, etc, if it is properly managed.
On tourism, the honourable minister is here. The other day, I said it at the Assembly, some small scale operators in the industry are saying that they are really concerned with this all inclusive tourism package. So honourable minister that’s the concern they are raising and they say this all inclusive does not filter down or does not have a trickle-down effect. Perhaps you would be able to elaborate on that.
And on trade, I wanted to say more, but on trade, honourable minister, I don’t know what is holding Gambia from linking agriculture to trade. Why don’t we explore processing through cottage industries or value addition to our agricultural produce. And this is an immediate area that we could invest. Our groundnuts or peanuts, they can be transformed into so many products. These could create employment for so many women and it has the potential of reducing our importation bill. By then we would not be importing peanut butter and other products which are imported by our hotels. We have them in abundance. The fruits are seasonal in this country but you can see that there is a lot of wastage. Go to the Sandika market in Serekunda. There is wastage during the seasons, the watermelons, you name it. So there is a real need for the ministry of trade to see how our agricultural produce is transformed into other products through cottage industries.
And then lastly, and this is a parliamentary question on the dock workers.
The dock workers is an issue that I really want to pursue because these are people who have given all their lives to this nation and they were doing it with pittance or starvation wages and theirs is an issue that we really need to look into. In fact, I will be pursuing this with the ministry because if you look at the condition of these people it is really pathetic.
And lastly, I would not do justice if I resume my seat without talking about Banjul. I’ve not yet seen Banjul given the facelift that was promised. There is construction work going on at Primet Street, but we were promised by the honourable minister that there would be a lot infrastructural work in Banjul to give it the necessary facelift that the capital city deserves.