European biometric and border management systems dubbed (Semlex) company has
tasked President Adama Barrow and ex-Interior minister to speak up on
allegations of attempted bribery over contract in The Gambia.
In an exclusive with this reporter, Semlex Group sales manager said they are pretty sure that the honorable former minister of the Interior and His Excellency President Adama Barrow will soon clear the air on the allegations of bribery.
Ralph Hajjar, who travelled to Banjul from Brussels about a month ago to deliver what their company said was a last chance at communication efforts with Gambia over the ID cards contract, said damages are very high in such a case.
“... not even taking into account the financial damage, but our integrity has been severely attacked based on no facts [but] irresponsible journalism as well as reports and allegations with no grounds,” he said.
“I want to say that I was quite shocked and disappointed to see the media spreading false information without any investigation on the validity of the fact,” he added.
Read the full interview:
Ralph Hajjar, Sales/Commercial Director, Semlex Group (Europe)
In June 2016, Gambia government and Semlex Group signed a contract to for the production of biometric national identification documents. Within three months afterwards, Ministry of Interior, acting under directives from Office of The President, wrote a letter to Semlex terminating the contract. The same ministry gave instructions for the contract to be given to another group without any tender for bidding process.
Rewind back to over 5 years ago, the same Jammeh government gave contract to a Gambian consultancy firm, Pristine Consulting, to produce the same ID cards. That company’s CEO was arrested and remanded, tried for economic crimes and later released by the courts. Now with new government in office, both Semlex and Pristine are laying claims to the same contract.
In this interview with journalist Sanna Camara, a top official of Semlex, Ralph Hajjar spoke on issues surrounding their Gambia project. Camara started by asking Mr. Hajjar what was the state of the ID contract with government?
Mr. Hajjar: I would like to thanks you again for giving us the opportunity to explain the situation from our point of view. Up to now, we had no official feedback from the government or the Ministry of interior. This is the reason why we made attempts to contact the ministry.
Q: Is it true that you gave $15 million so you can have 75 per cent of the said contract?
A: This information is wrong, vicious and very unprofessional journalism. Why would we take 75% of the contract when rightfully own 100%?
Q: Can you explain your level of cooperation with the ex-minister of Interior, Mai Fatty?
A: I had the opportunity to meet the delegation of the Gambia in February 2017 where I was shortly introduced to Hon. Ministers of Justice and Interior. Since then, I only had communications with the ministry through the permanent secretary.
Q: There have been reports that your company has been allegedly engaged in bribing government officials to win contracts in DRC, and that you were under investigations in another African country (Botswana?)?
A: We never worked in Botswana.
In DR Congo, we have delivered one of the most secured passports in the world. There were some internal political fights as elections were coming up. People used the media to attack others. We have already put a claim in Belgium against those allegations, and we are confident in the result.
Q: On what basis are your collaborations/arrangements with Pristine Consulting?
A: We never had any communications with Pristine and have no reason to communicate with Pristine. A collaboration would make no sense as they have no value to add to our business be it financial or technical.
Q: What is the capacity of your company to deliver quality and best standard ID documents for The Gambia?
A: Our company is running a BOT (build-operate-transfer) project in Africa and all around the world for more than 20 years. We are currently running six BOT programs. We are the first company to introduce BOT concept in Africa with 100% success. We financed 100% of all the projects we implement. I invite all Gambians to visit our webpage and watch the videos we have made to showcase our projects. There are numerous high level references for all to clearly see.
Q: So when is the Gambia project kicking off?
A: The project has been signed in June 2016. We were supposed to start the project before the end of the year. All materials were already purchased and a huge portion was already purchased and a huge portion was already sent to Banjul for implementation. The political events and the change have frozen our project for sometimes. We had the opportunity to exchange with the Ministry of Interior who kindly asked us to hold until the 6th of April after the local government elections. That was what we did.
Q: Under your contract, you were supposed to ship in equipment into the country (Interior minister said it’s worth D10 million). Is this true?
A: Yes, I confirm a value of US$10million invested by our company. The shipment arrived in good shape in Banjul but unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity to install them. This shipment was only a part of the overall investment program defined by the contract. We have already produced more than 200, 000 ECOWAS ID cards and bought all the machinery (laser engraving systems) for personalization.
Q: How much is the project’s infrastructure costing your firm?
A: Such projects are very costly especially at the start of the project where we have all structural and material investment to make.
Q: Permanent secretary under Jammeh, Nai Ceesay, wrote to you on the 29th August 2016, notifying you of termination of the contract. Were you told why?
Q: When did you receive this communication?
A: Actually, we never received it officially. But we were notified on the 27th of September 2016.
Q: What was your reaction to this?
A: We wrote a letter calling for a meeting to understand what was happening and why, as it was an illegal termination with no legal grounds.
Q: In February 2017, you wrote to the new Minister Fatty, to follow up on your earlier letter of the 18th of November 2016, regarding “agreement for implementation of biometric solutions and border management systems”. You wanted “to reconnect the link.”
Tell me why you wanted to reconnect after your contract got “illegally” terminated instead of going to court?
A: We are a reputable company operating in more than 20 countries around the world. We are partners with main international agencies as International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), UNDP and Interpol. Our activity is to secure identities and produce added-value documents based on the most advanced technology. If we can find a solution and get the chance to work, we would take it. Going to court would be our last resort and would not be good for The Gambia. This is why we hope that the relevant stakeholders will make the right decision.
Q: Under Article 14.1 of the contract, you were to take action to recoup investment and damages should the contract be unlawfully terminated. Would you have sued the government for $100 million? What would such figures represent under your contract?
A: The amount is not an important factor. It is a high value.
However, it is there to avoid such situations. Damages are very high in this case, not even taking into account the financial damages. But our integrity has been severely attacked based on no facts and irresponsible journalism as well as reports and allegations with no grounds.
Q: What would be your last words?
A: I came as a last chance in The Gambia almost one month ago to personally deliver a final letter of communication hoping to clear the air on matters and get a better understanding.
I really believe that this project we have designed in accordance with The Gambian government is beneficial for the country in terms of security, quality and cost. I want to say that I was quite shocked and disappointed to see the media spreading false information without any investigation on the validity of the fact. I am pretty sure that honourable former minister of Interior and the honourable president will soon clear the air on the allegations of bribing attempts.