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Cement Importers Call for Minister Joof’s Resignation Amidst Steep Cement Tax

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Bubacarr O. Joof, the Minister of Trade, Industry, Regional Integration and Employment

By Buba Gagigo

The Gambian Cement Importers and Traders Association is calling for the immediate resignation of Trade Minister Bubacarr O. Joof, citing a substantial tax increase on cement imports from Senegal.

The association criticizes the government’s decision to raise import duties by 500% on cement transported via road networks, claiming it obstructs all African road imports and benefits certain operators who import by sea, leading to the influx of substandard cement from companies like Jah Oil, Salam, and Gacem. They argue that this policy is detrimental to the promotion of African trade and favors markets far from Africa.

“The Gambian government’s recent import duty hike of 500% on cement via road networks effectively blocks all African imports by road and favors bagging operators who import by vessel, in favor of poor-quality imports by Jah Oil, Salam, Gacem. Make no mistake, this policy is contra to our mission to promote African trade in favor of distant Eurasian markets,” they said.

The group contends that this policy adversely affects Gambian consumers by inflating cement prices, reducing options, and hindering trade with essential ECOWAS partners, thus contradicting the principles of a free market.

They accuse the government, particularly Minister Joof, of fostering a culture of corruption and kickbacks, which they believe is compromising the economic welfare of The Gambia. They hold Minister Joof responsible for his significant influence over the economy and demand his resignation due to his alleged role in exacerbating youth unemployment through incompetence or neglect.

“The economic welfare of The Gambia is being undermined by a culture of kickbacks and corruption at the top echelons of our government. Baboucarr Joof, Minister of Trade, Industry, Integration and Employment, exerts significant control over the Gambian economy, essentially playing the role of economic gatekeeper, and fostering an environment of kickbacks. We demand Baboucarr Joof’s immediate resignation for his central role in fostering widespread unemployment among thousands of youths, either through sheer incompetence or blatant disregard,” they said.

The importers allege that Minister Joof is currently in Senegal seeking support to further restrict the importation of Senegalese cement, actions they claim show a disregard for economic impact analysis and the country’s economic health in favor of personal gain.

Highlighting the immediate market reaction to the policy, the association notes price increases in various regions and a consumer boycott of certain brands, indicating a preference for more affordable ECOWAS brands over the higher-priced local options.

“To be perfectly clear, Hamidou Jah of Jah Oil, and Gacem all import cement and Muhammed Sillah of Salam imports all inputs necessary for the final process of cement. The Gambia does not have easily convertible natural resources to manufacture cement. All cement sold in the Gambia is imported. How can Hamidou Jah scream about indirect benefits to Senegal when he insists on only hiring his family members from Mali, importing both cement and labor into The Gambia.

“We are seeing immediate price feedback from the market; In Soma, Jah Oil Tiger brand cement is already at D410 compared to the Senegal brands which are selling for D390. In Farafenni, the price difference between Tiger and the regional ECOWAS brands jumped over D25 immediately after the government announcement of a new D185 duty on road imports. Finally, in Basse, shop owners are boycotting Salam and in two weeks Salam was unable to sell 2,000 bags. The consumer has spoken,” their statement continued.

They claimed that even the Gambian government procured its cement for the OIC road construction from Sococim in Senegal. This implies that the government recognizes either a shortfall in the capacity of local bagging operators to meet demand, finds better pricing options in Senegal, or harbors doubts about the quality of the local operators’ products.

“Baboucarr Joof and his enablers conveniently omit the fact that cement from ECOWAS states are cheaper in The Gambia than their domestic markets due to the ETLS protocol, which promotes export of originated goods. Monopolistic practices are detrimental to the economic welfare of Gambians. If an enterprise is allowed to monopolize any sector of the economy, it creates an environment where price hikes and inferior products are forced upon Gambian consumers.

“It is no secret that Hamidou is one of the wealthiest businessmen in the Gambia, but he also started as an immigrant with humble roots selling bowls. Now that he and his family have benefitted from The Gambian generosity, he is leveraging his connections to The President, H.E. Adama Barrow and his ministers, to monopolize the rice import, banana, fuel and now he seeks to control the importation of cement into the Gambia to the detriment of Gambian consumer and entrepreneurs who invested heavily in the welfare of the Gambian and its workforce,” they said.

The cement importers say the cronyism is further exemplified by the fact that Gacem (non-Gambian ownership) also buys cement from Jah Oil, “exploiting a loophole’ to benefit from their special investment certificate while charging D30 more for the same cement.”

They continued; “if local bagging operators like Jah Oil sell the “superior” 42.5R grade at a lower price than the “inferior” 32.5R grade, why would anyone opt for the more expensive lower grade? This underscores the importance of consumer choice and competition in the market. The Kickback Mafia of Ministers wield sole authority over who benefits from the special incentive certificate, effectively determining the winners and losers in various industries. This concentration of power has sparked concerns about a concerted effort against capitalism, as evidenced by recent disputes over fuel taxes, the cumbersome tagging of individual items, and continuous increases in port duties,” they said.

They said these policies have pushed consumers and businesses to seek for alternatives abroad, raising questions about the country’s economic welfare. They said the concept of protecting infant industries in the cement sector is flawed. 

“Cement production has ancient origins, and companies like Jah Oil, Salam, and Gacem struggle with competitiveness due to their reliance on importing and re-bagging cement or importing all ingredients for final processing. Salam, the only one involved in any kind of value add, must still import all inputs and is plagued with constant quality issues and has the lowest capacity of the operators. While supporting industrial development is crucial, especially considering that The Gambia consistently imports more than 90% of goods consumed since 2017, it is essential to acknowledge the current reality. The policy changes sought by the cement bagging operators primarily benefit the elite and will do nothing to help our trade balance deficit, as all the cement is still imported. 

“The current policy of protecting the cement sector through subsidies for companies that import, and re-package cement (bagging companies) is flawed. These companies have benefited from tens of millions of dollars from handouts, from investment certificates, duty waivers, road import moratoriums, and they still haven’t increased production or lowered prices despite past government support. In their attempts to distort the facts, the three bagging operators also claim to employ 5,000 people. Stand outside their bagging facilities for a day, and you can easily confirm their employment pool is less than 800,” they explained.

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