Wednesday, March 21, 2018

National Assembly requested to open a parliamentary inquiry into the SEMLEX fiasco

The Right2Know (Gambia), a civic society group, has sent a letter and a detailed note justifying the need for a parliamentary inquiry into the procurement procedure that led to the award of a contract for the production of Gambia's passport, National IDs and possibly voter's card to the family-owed company named Semlex, headed by a Syrian-Belgian.

The contract award has been marred by misapplication of standard procurement rules and procedures and interrupted by fits and starts that rendered the entire process suspect.  The detailed justification note initially addressed to  some members of the National Assembly enumerated the reasons why the Semlex saga must be scrutinized and subjected to a public probe through the National Assembly.

The Right2Know letter states "we hope that the legislature will use its oversight mandate to seek clarity on the Semlex contract, and send a clear message to constituents, the general populace and indeed the world, that The Gambia is now in an era of elevating the demand of public accountability, by cultivating a culture of good governance and the principles of separation of power."

The underlying facts and assumptions as to whether due process was followed in awarding of, what Right2Know described as "our vital social possessions" (passports and IDs) to a secretive and highly opaque company whose reputation has come more scrutiny both in countries they do business and in its own home country of Belgium.

The letter also drew attention to the contradictory pronouncements by various government ministers and public officials who were involved in one stage or the other of the procurement process, "using an avenue of secrecy to scuttle public scrutiny."

The R2K letter finally appealed to members of the National Assembly to "test the vibrancy of our new found democracy in the New Gambia.  The memebrship of the group offered its services to help draft a ToR once the motion has been tabled in the National Assembly.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Editorial: President Barrow, Gambia is not for sale

Sidi Sanneh 
Since the departure of Jammeh, little over a year ago, the Transition Government of President Adama Barrow has been careening from one negotiating mishap to another with foreign entities that can only spell disaster for the country.

Emerging from 22 years of a dictatorship that is universally acclaimed as one of the most repressive and corrupt in post-independence Africa, the country was left with an economy that suffered structural damage and its trained human resources severely depleted.

To respond to the structural problems, most of which were purposefully created, the incoming government was not only expected, but explicitly mandated, to urgently address them as its primary objective as a transitional government.

At the top of the list of priorities of the Barrow-led transition government were a review of the Constitution with a view to proposing modifications where necessary or write an entirely new one for presentation to the Gambian people in a national referendum.

The election laws were of major concern, of which Barrow and his UDP colleagues were victims of, and for this reason, it was expected that this would have commanded top priority.  Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be the case, entertaining speculation that Barrow and the UDP, if not his coalition partners, intend to use these restrictive and exclusionary laws against the opposition.

Civil service and SOE reforms were also expected to have been addressed immediately after assuming office as a necessary condition to weeding out the excess baggage left behind by Jammeh. A bloated, ill-trained, inexperienced and corrupt civil service, if left untouched, is a tacit endorsement of the character and behavior of the previous regime.

President Barrow's inaction on the reform front telegraphed his intention to retain crooked officials from the previous regime who are regularly paraded  before the country on national television to answer to criminal acts that include but not limited to looting the country's Central Bank of hundreds of million United States dollars in the name of Executive Orders from the ex-dictator.

The priority areas are labor intensive requiring a significant local input from the civil service and civic society.  It is also the least rewarding, financially and otherwise because it does not involve appreciable financial outlay, compared to jetting to Ankara or the Philippines to negotiate a procurement contract, that will accrue to civil servants which, we would like to believe, was a disincentive to embark on these vital national priorities by the transition government.

After all, elections are fast approaching - a very expensive proposition, especially if you'd like to be president.  The transition thus became more of a fund-arising opportunity than a period to kick-start a stalled economy and restructure a totally dysfunctional civil service and other institutional reforms.  This explains, in part, the breakneck speed with which highly questionable projects are being signed with little or no public input into the project identification and selection process that led to loan negotiations and signature.

There is total lack of transparency throughout the entire project cycle, resulting in misunderstanding and acrimony that has spilled over in the National Assembly when the Finance Minister tried to secure parliamentary approval for GAMTEL's fiber optic cable project by presenting what was referred to as the framework as opposed to the detailed summary of the appraisal report and the loan agreement delineating the terms and conditions.  What should have been a routine presentation ended up being a public display of lack of decorum between a member of parliament and the Speaker.

More acrimonious confrontations should be expected when a series of projects are brought before the National Assembly without the routine courtesies of providing vital loan profiles and the factors that went into the decision matrix.  National Assembly members feel they are being rushed into decisions that will commit them and their government and the Gambian taxpayer well beyond the transition and decades into successive governments.

Two controversial power generation deals signed with Karpowership, a Karadeniz Energy Group of Turkey and SENELEC the Senegalese electricity company are also likely to raise questions and doubts, in some quarters, because of the apparent lack of transparency in both the selection, price negotiations and the temporary approach adopted in addressing the country's energy shortage.

The fact that proposals from prospective renewable energy providers have been sidelined as part of the electricity sector roadmap is a missed opportunity for the country to join a growing number of countries utilizing solar and other forms of renewable energy as a cheaper and sustainable source than fossil fuel.

For instance, a typical solar iproject s 9.8 cents per KwH.  When compared with the same amount of power, the Gambian people will save 3.7 cents per KwH.  From a pricing standpoint, it makes little sense as to why Senegal's 13.5 cents or Turkey's 14 cents rental deal got chosen over solar.  A 30MW (30,000 Kw) rental plant running at full capacity for 12 hrs at 14 centsper KwH will cost USD 50,000 per day.

It is hard to justify borrowing such an amount just to pay for a rental.  It is also becoming increasingly evident that government (NAWEC) prefers to borrow and spend rather than inviting Independent Power Producers of renewables to join in the effort to solving the country's energy problem, permanently. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Public Service Announcement - The Chronicle

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Monday, February 26, 2018

The problem with President Barrow's communication strategy is the absence of one

President Barrow and his Director of Press 
Faced with mounting criticism from supporters and non-supporters alike, at home and abroad, for staying behind the fortified State House and communicating minimally, if at all, at long stretches, President Barrow appeared recently to be surrendering to the public's demand by granting press interviews and addressing an audience of Gambian immigrants during his recent trip to Turkey.

Credit goes to the president for responding positively to criticism, even if the outcome of those press outings were anything but successful.  In fact, his comments and responses to questions produced what can only be described as serious backlash, in social media and on the ground in Banjul.

The Banjulians and the urban dwellers in the Greater Banjul Area were unfortunately on the receiving end of Barrow's public scorning in a foreign country.  Fire was returned immediately and ferociously from those who felt offended by Barrow's Ankara statement and rightfully so.

Our president should be a uniter and not a divider.  He should be the president of all Gambians and not a president of a section of a country or a group.  We maintain our early characterization of Barrow's Ankara speech as ill-advised, divisive and beneath the dignity of the Office of The President of The Republic of The Gambia.

The president's recent encounters with the press appears to be in response to mounting criticisms of his management style and his government's priorities during the transition period - criticism that seems to intensify as he continues to insulate himself further from the public by surrounding himself with relatives, friends and business partners he feels comfortable to be around with but who, unfortunately, have little or no governance experience.

In a recent television interview, President Barrow seemed to take pride in not taking the time to visit Military or Police Headquarters even though he's the, and neither has be visited the Department of Customs and Excise "that collects revenue" for his government.  If we extend his logic to apply to the condition of the nation's health facilities, he will not be visiting the country's doctors and nurses any time soon or the facilities in which they toil daily without electricity most of the time and where the medicine cabinets are empty.  We would like to believe this is not what he meant but that's how his statement is being interpreted. 

Is Barrow uncaring?  We don't think so.  In fact, he is generally seen as a caring person.  His public statements, however, suggest the opposite which points to the need to develop a communication strategy to address the obvious deficiencies in his communication skills.

Listening to critical voices outside of the State House bubble can be a double-edged sword.  It can and does keep him abreast of the concerns of the population to help him govern better.  But it can also contribute to reacting inappropriately, as he has done when he appeared to have dismissed and poo pooed the financial and intellectual contributions of diaspora Gambians, Greater Banjulians and many other non-Gambians across the globe.  There was the expected reaction from the diaspora, correcting the record of their financial and other contributions that led to Jammeh's electoral defeat.

It is now obvious, especially after so many misspoken words of the president, that a communication strategy is needed at the State House to ensure uniformity and consistency in messaging of the true account of the current state of the transition government which includes but not limited to the prepping up of the president before every interview with journalists, domestic and foreign.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

President Barrow must step down in 2019, unless...

The Coalition of 7+1 
The adage that a person is as good as his or her word will be tested in the coming months as President Barrow presidency approaches the halfway mark of the three-year MOU-specified tenure in office, which, in our view, must be respected.

For Barrow to serve beyond December 2019, the Coalition Partners comprising of the seven opposition parties and the independent presidential candidate must reconvene, in a convention-style forum, to agree to extend the mandate prescribed in the MOU beyond the 3-year limit.

During normal times, the issue would find an easy solution by simply referencing the MOU which created the Coalition under certain terms and conditions.  Unfortunately, these are not normal times.  The country is beginning to emerge from twenty-two years of one of Africa's most repressive regimes, the trauma of which is debilitating to both the democratic institutions as well as the human spirit.

The dictatorship also weakened the political parties to the point of rendering them impotent.   The former regime succeeded, as well, in blurring the lines that distinguished one political party from the other.  The resultant effect is a symbiotic relationships between them, driven partially by expediency and political opportunism rather than by shared values and principles.

The blurring of the boundaries occurred among opposition political parties, as well as among political parties' interests and, the personal interests of individual party members that were beginning to converge after the electoral victory of Adama Barrow.  It immediately resulted in the trading of party membership for positions in the civil service.

Recently, we cited the various sentiments expressed across the political divide regarding whether President Barrow should stick with the provisions or principles set out in the Coalition's MOU that requires the Coalition President to vacate the seat after three years or to follow the stipulated constitutional presidential term of 5 years.

The matter may have been a topic of discussion during the negotiations that led to the selection of Adama Barrow as the Coalition's flag bearer.  Whereas there are some who feel that the Coalition partners should stay true to the MOU, there are other voices that favor the stipulated presidential term of 5 years.

Because the National Assembly Members were elected to serve the full 5-year term, it becomes necessary to realigned the president's term with that of the NAMs.  The shortening the term of the NAMs to 3 years would be an unlikely option because it is already consistent and in line with the constitutional provisions.

That leaves open the options of formally extending the term of the Coalition president for an additional two years or not extending the president's MOU-mandated 3-year term which automatically allows the Vice President to assume the presidency for two years.

A convention of the Coalition partners must reconvened sooner than later so as to determine the length of term of the transitional president created by an MOU that is still operational, independent of the standard constitutional provisions and, only if to confirm maintaining the current status quo.  The MOU created the current political dispensation.

The MOU should form the basis for untangling the untidy mess created as a matter of necessity.  It is therefore an absolute and necessary imperative to untangle the mess to allow The Gambia to start the recalibration of the term of office of the President of The Republic with that of Members of the National Assembly.

Friday, February 23, 2018

SEMLEX-produced passports revoked and cancelled

Comoros Islands 

While the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Comoros Island, Souef Mohamed El-Amine, was busy revoking and cancelling - at last count - 170 Comoros passports, all issued by Albert Karaziwan, the Syrian-Belgian owner of SEMLEX, authorities in the Commonwealth of Dominica have raised concerns about the security of their own passports being produced by Semlex. 

In the case of Dominica, as in elsewhere in Africa where Semlex has operated, it is being reported that alleged bribes and kickbacks have been paid for Semlex to secure the contract.  Alarm bells rang when Dominican passports were found in the possession of Syrian nationals which were traced back to a large amount of blank passports delivered to individuals in Morocco. 

Although Dominican authorities denied that any of their passports were unaccounted for, the country was doing business with Semlex owned by "a dody Syrian national accused of major misconduct throughout Africa, according to and as described by a local press outlet.

Meanwhile back in the Comoros Islands, Mr. Karaziwan's Comoros diplomatic passport was being cancelled, together with those of his wife and children, in addition to 170 passports all issued by Semlex.  He was travelling as Ambassador of Comoros and Counsellor to the President of Comoros Islands. 

His appointments as Honorary Consul, Vice Consul, and Investment Counsellor, illegally coonfered on Mr. Karaziwan, were also cancelled by the government of the Comoros.

Mr. Karaziwan was also accused in the Comoros of printing and selling the country's passports to foreign nationals, including the brother of Iran oil sanctions evader, Reza Zarrab, who recently pled guilty in U.S. District Court in New York. 

It is being reported that the Government of Comoros Islands has demanded further information, from Semlex, on an additional 158 passports that were claimed to have been issued and delivered to foreign nationals.  It is not known, according to reports, whether criminal charges will be brought against Semlex.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Why is SEMLEX being forced down our throats?

Semlex Hq in Brussels 
The on-again off-again contract between the family-owned Belgian company, Semlex,  and the Gambia government is on-again.  Pristine Consulting, a Microsoft-certified, Gambian-owned biometric company, was first awarded the contract to produce national ID documents, eventually ran afoul of the Jammeh regime that resulted in court action.  In the end, one of the owners of the company went into exile in the U.S. and the other briefly held in custody.

Eventually, it was Jammeh's turn to be sent into involuntary exile after he lost the December 2016 election when the new government of Adama Barrow tried awarding the contract to Semlex without properly engaging Pristine in the process which contravened the open tender process for such projects that involved public funds.  For background history of the Semlex contract saga, read more here, here here and here.

Fast forward to December 2017 when the government decided to invite Semlex and Pristine to re-submit proposals in a limited tender with a January 2018 deadline.  Pristine accepted the invitation and proceeded to submit its proposal accordingly.  Semlex, on the other hand, adamantly refused to participate and thus did not submit a proposal because it felt entitled to the contract and should be "restored" regardless. 

Why is Semlex feeling entitled to the contract? This is a company that is currently being investigated in Belgium and has had both its headquarters and the CEO's private residence raided by the police in search of evidence.  The company has been suspected for engaging in bribery and corruption in several Africa countries where its business record is found to be so appalling that it calls for it to be blacklisted in The Gambia.

Why is Semlex acting so brashly?  Is it because, as it is being alleged, that the brother of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice is the currently serving as Semlex's lawyer in The Gambia?  If true, why is the Justice Ministry managing the procurement process instead of the Finance Ministry?  Why is the Justice Minister not recusing himself from the process because he is so conflicted?

In the words of the Justice Minister, the decision to accorded Pristine the privilege to participate in the limited re-tendering was "for strategic legal reasons", suggesting something nefarious especially when Semlex's refusal to submit a proposal was rewarded instead with the contract that will now include the production of the country's voters card - a very perplexing development.

More perplexing, according to the Justice Minister, Semlex is being awarded the contract to avoid, what the minister concludes, to be, another expensive arbitration judgement he is certain to lose at a huge price to the public treasury.  Says who, and is that sufficient reason to contravene the procurement laws by awarding a contract to a company that refuses to honor government's invitation to a limited tender.  Gambians cannot lose sight of the fact that Semlex refused to submit a bid and is being rewarded with a contract nonetheless.

The conspicuous absence - in public, at least - of the Ministry of Finance is equally perplexing as the ministry responsible for public procurement process.  When the former Interior Minister Fatty led the charge in support of Semlex, the current Justice Minister was dead set against awarding the contract to Semlex.  Now, he's the one championing the Belgian company.  What has changed?

Finally, given all the controversies surrounding Semlex and its dismal record around the African continent, Government should blacklist the company by barring it from doing business in The Gambia, as other countries have done.  If Semlex's public business record is not enough, the fact that its offices and the CEO's private residence have been raided in search of evidence relating to bribery and corruption allegations should be sufficient to raise the alarm bells in Banjul.