Personnel is Policy: Bad Choices at Ministries of Agriculture and Tourism. Dr. Ousman Gajigo

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

When the Barrow government was preparing to take power, they made a major announcement that key ministerial posts would be given to technocrats. This was a significant declaration given the monumental development tasks we face after 22 years of autocratic rule by Yahya Jammeh. Unfortunately, the Barrow government never made good on this important promise. There has hardly been any positions filled by technocrats in key ministries where it would have mattered.

Nowhere is this failure to honour that promise more glaring than at the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Tourism. If any ministries needed technocratic and non-political appointments, it is these two. These two ministries are in charge of sectors that are among the most important for our economy. Agriculture accounts for 20% of our GDP (the largest) and employs about 70% of the labor force. Tourism is the largest foreign exchange earner, as well as providing significant employment for a large number of Gambians, particularly youths. For at least the past 40 years, almost every single movement in our gross domestic product (GDP) can be accounted for by shocks to either the tourism or agricultural sectors, irrespective of how well or how badly other sectors have done. For example, in 2011 when the country experienced a major drought, that was sufficient to plunge the economy in a recession. In 2014, we experienced another economic contraction from the Ebola crisis shock, which impacted us through the major drop in tourist arrivals.

In other words, these two ministries are in charge of sectors that are essential not only for economic growth, but for broad-based development. The country cannot have any sustained development that does not require careful implementation and management of development programs in these sectors. Instead of making sure that well-considered appointments were made in these two ministries, the Barrow government decided to make the most political appointments there.

HamatBah’sclaim tosuitability forheading the tourism ministry is running or owning a hotel. But if this is the reason that the Barrow government considers as sufficient proof of relevant expertiseto run the ministry, then it is sign of immense ineptitude in their decision-making. Just because someone isa doctor or runs a clinic does not mean they would necessarily make a good choice as a minister of health. It takes only a few minutes of listening to Mr. Bah’s utterances to realize howunsuited the gentleman is to head such a ministry. Since his appointment, the most prominent events associated with him has been his embarrassing utterances that have needlessly insulted other countries. These and his other utterances do nothing to dispel the image of a clown with his foot permanently planted in his mouth.

In the case of OJ Jallow, he got appointed as Minister of Agriculture presumably because he served in the same capacity during the Jawara regime. Unfortunately, OJ is only a poor man’s idea of an expert in agriculture. We need to dispel the common but misguided notion that longevity in a sector equals competence and knowledge. While OJ may have served as a Minister of Agriculture before, there is no accomplishment under him that one can point to during that long tenure. OJ is like many ministers in theJawararegime who were known more for their charisma and longevity in government rather than any actual accomplishments. The agricultural sector under Jawara performed as well as it did under Jammeh, which means essentially no development in the sector. From the early 1980s under his overthrow, the agricultural sector in The Gambia was on a continuous decline. Agriculture under Jawara and Jammeh (and so far under Barrow) remains completely dependent on whether there was sufficient rainfall or not.

OJ’s performance in the current government is his continuation of business as usual. In other words, there will no development under agriculture as long as he heads this ministry. Let’s consider one issue that should have been of priority importance for his ministry. As many may be aware, the government appropriately seized all the tractors that Jammeh had given away illegally to certain people. The repossession of these tractors was a good idea as the government continues to account for the innumerable malpractices by that government. However, the agricultural sector in the country needs to put these tractors to use to till the land and increase productivity. But since early 2017, these tractors have been lying at the police stations across Kiang, Foni, the Kombos and Central River Region, rusting away under the sun and completely depreciating in value.

The effect of having these tractors lie idly in waste is already been felt in the agricultural sector in parts of the country. Normally, rice farmers would be harvesting rice from their irrigated rice fields at this time of the year in Jahally Pachar areas of CRR. However, the area cultivated this season was very small, which has resulted in a tiny harvest. And one of the main reasons was the shortage of tractors to till the rice fields. This problem is completely avoidable if the appropriate appointment had been made at the Ministry of Agriculture.

What the government ought to have done was quickly auction the tractors and put the money in a special account until the inquiries are completed, while the tractors can be put to use bytheir new legitimate owners. Instead, the tractors continue to lie uselessly, depreciating in value by the day, while the agricultural sector continues to experience acute lack of inputs. This is a financial loss for the country as a whole, but particular loss for the agricultural sector in terms of foregone productivity. But rather than tackle this issue, , the most prominent issue OJ decided to prioritize were fights over permanent secretary appointment, personal endeavors and other issues of peripheral importance to the country’s agricultural sector.

The appointments of Hamat Bah and OJ Jallow demonstrated one of them none things, none of which reflects favourably on the Barrow government: they did not mean it when theydeclared that technocrats would be appointed or they simply did not understand which ministries badly needed technocrats or areconfused by what a technocrat means. Whatever the real reason, it is sign of leadership failure, which diminishes one’s confidence that this current government will be able to meet the reasonable expectations we had for it.   

At this point, many people would stop at the level of Hamat Bah and OJ Jallow for these shortcomings. However, that misses the point that the ultimate responsibility for these terrible appointments is President Barrow, who heads the government. In case anyone feels the need to excuse these decisions by pointing to the fact that Messrs Bah and Jallow are leaders of parties in a coalition government and therefore needs to be given cabinet position, all I need to point out is that there are other less consequential ministries they could have been appointed to. Furthermore, the fact that President Barrow has already sacked MaiFatty as the Minister of Interior demonstrates that he is not too constrained by the whatever deal they had been struck among themselvesduringthe formation of the coalition. So,since both Hamat Bah and OJ Jallow need not be heading these specific ministries, President Barrows ultimately and completely owns this failure.