Demba Ali Jawo, Former Minister of Communications and Information Technology
By D. A. Jawo
The ‘Meet the People’s Tour’ is a constitutional requirement for the president to tour the country at least once a year, but are Gambian tax-payers really getting value for their money and resources being used to sponsor the tour?
While the jury is still out as to whether it is still necessary for the president and his government to undertake such an expensive annual ritual, but it is quite obvious that the tour in its present format is not only wastage of public resources, but it has long passed whatever usefulness it ever had. It may have been necessary in the past when the road network was much poorer than it is today and getting access to many parts of the country was not that easy. Therefore, it was then necessary for the president and his officials to undertake an organized tour of the country to meet the farmers and others upcountry to hear from them about their problems and constraints. However, the very fact that, with the much-improved road network, the president can visit any area of the country at any time without having to budget millions of Dalasis for it, shows how obsolete and unnecessary the tour has become.
Therefore, it is now quite apparent that there is absolutely no need for such an expensive tour, which is seen by many people as sheer waste of public funds. This is even more so when the tour has now virtually been transformed into a political jamboree during which the people up country are encouraged or even coerced into renewing their allegiance to President Barrow and his National People’s Party (NPP). We have seen that it is mainly NPP militants and supporters who are mobilized to join the extra-ordinarily large entourage, costing the Gambian tax payers millions of Dalasis which could have been put into more productive areas of the economy.
In addition to the unnecessary wastage of public funds, we have also seen the negative ripple effects of the tour on many public institutions as many of their road-worthy vehicles are often impounded to join the tour with most of those institutions being left paralyzed during the period. What is also obvious is that most of those vehicles are allocated to NPP militants who have virtually no role in a state-sponsored tour, apart from just taking advantage of the free money and resources available to mobilize for the ruling party. “One of our vehicles was put at the disposal of an NPP lady who was seen using it like her personal property to run her personal errands while we are unable to carry out some of our urgent work in the office,” complained an official of one public institution.
The original idea of the annual tour was to give opportunity to the president and members of his technical team to tour the country and discuss with the farming community and others involved in development activities their problems and constraints and proffer possible solutions to them. However, it seems to have now completely deviated from that noble objective but instead, it is being used as just another political campaign tour by the president and the ruling party.
As a state-sponsored tour, one would have expected that it would have been quite inclusive of everyone, regardless of political affiliation. However, we have seen that only those identified with the NPP are welcome and all attempts by others not seen to be associated with the NPP to participate in the tour, have been rebuffed. We have witnessed how those members of the opposition, such as National Assembly members and area councilors who attempted to get involved ended up being humiliated. A good case in point was when, in 2021, the former National Assembly Member for Niamina East Constituency, Omar Ceesay, attended one such meeting in Kudang as representative of the area, he was subjected to quite harsh treatment, making it quite clear to him that he was not welcome there, even though it was supposed to be a state-sponsored occasion. As a result of such humiliation, most opposition officials have now stopped attending all functions associated with the tour.
It certainly does not make any sense for the president to visit an area and yet the representative of the people of that area is not given the opportunity to participate in any function taking place there. This is just another clear manifestation that there is no genuine attempt by President Barrow and his government to address the problems of the rural people during the tour, but instead, they are just unfairly using state resources to consolidate their political grip of the country. Also, rather than encouraging the farming community to talk about their problems and constraints, the speakers at the various functions are carefully chosen and apparently briefed as to what to say, which in most cases, are to heap praises on President Barrow and his government.
Another trend being observed in the tour is the resurgence of different communities competing to ‘donate’ their livestock and other properties to the president, which we all denounced during the Sir Dawda and Yahya Jammeh eras.