By Madi Jobarteh
The Gambia is at a crossroads. After 22 years of brutal dictatorship that came on the back of 30 years of poverty and underdevelopment now is the time when Gambians must decide what kind of country we deserve and want. Since Independence we continue to live in poverty and exploitation for no reason other than poor leadership that lacks vision and conscience backed by poor citizenship characterised by low political awareness. Do we want to continue on the same path?
The characteristics of poor leadership and weak governance are political patronage, ineffectiveness and lack of accountability which only breeds weak institutions hence corruption, poor delivery of basic social services and abuse of office. Nations that underwent conflict or autocratic rule or poor leadership and now engaged in a transition like ours are usually very prone to such characteristics hence the need for citizen vigilance.
The issue of Semlex is a clear case of poor leadership that citizens must not allow to stand. This is a company that was hired by a corrupt dictator in the first place in an arrangement that was not beneficial to the Gambia. Semlex was chosen over a Gambian company, Pristine which was to provide national ID cards at far cheaper cost to citizens. Furthermore, as a local company the integrity and safety of our national document is far more secured with Pristine than it will be with Semlex. Already the dubious activities of Semlex in other African countries have been a subject of several media reports as well as a criminal investigation by their own home government in Belgium.
The argument that the Gambia Government gave that withdrawing from the contract with Semlex will cost the country dearly is false. Every contract has termination clauses and both parties can invoke these provisions when the contract is no more in their interest. The Semlex contract with the former regime was untenable and the contract with this current Government is equally untenable because both contracts unduly and unfairly cost the country more. Therefore, there is genuine and urgent need to review and withdraw from this contract.
With the current contract, not only would Semlex enjoy special tax concessions and duty waivers but the company will also not pay for anything in the Gambia as the Government will provide them office space and staffs free of charge. Furthermore, the Government is required by the contract to compel each and every Gambian to obtain an ID card which means more profits for Semlex.
At the end of the day what does the Gambia gain in this contract? Nothing. Rather citizens will have to pay more for an ID card while the protection of our personal data cannot be guaranteed. This is because the Gambia Government lacks the ability to prevent Semlex from transferring our data to third parties or even selling our national documents to foreigners. This is not farfetched because Semlex had indeed done this in other countries.
Therefore, all citizens must realize that what is at stake here is not merely the cost of the ID card. What is truly at stake here is the very soul and future of our country and its good governance and development. If we allow our Government to contract any kind of company, we run the risk of becoming a client state. This means our country will transform into a milking cow where any tom, dick and harry would come to fleece us off our resources thanks to weak leadership.
If the Barrow Administration could have the opportunity to cancel the previous contract what then stops them from getting away altogether from Semlex for good.? The Semlex contract has not shown anywhere that the Gambia Government will suffer any huge costs for leaving that contract. After all is it not better to pay a huge some of money and save the nation from harm than to go ahead with a company that has the potential to expose our country to all sorts of risks?
The practice of governments withdrawing from contracts and agreements is a reality in our world. When serious leaders and governments realise that a particular contract or agreement is not in their national interest, they withdraw just to protect their country and people. Why cannot the Gambia Government do the same? What do we lose by abandoning Semlex?
Citizens must insist that our Government pursues partnerships and agreements that give us economic benefits and safety. Secondly the Gambia has enough potential inside our country, both in the public and private sectors to develop our own biometric documents. The expertise and experience indeed exist in this country only if the Government is truly interested in engaging the right actors on the ground.
We know that Gamtel or Gamcel or GNPC among several public enterprises where created by the Gambia Government at various times to provide goods and services to our people. Despite the abuse of Yaya Jammeh these institutions are viable ventures. If the Government can therefore create such enterprises why cannot the same Gambia Government create another national company that can produce biometric documents? Alternatively, the Government can partner with or hire private companies to provide this service.
As Gambians we must bear in mind that this country is more than 50 years old. This country has enough opportunities and potential to generate wealth for its own development. We have the necessary expertise and experience to produce our own materials. Yet after 50 years of Independence the Gambia remains one of the poorest nations on earth.
The only reason we are so poor is not because we lack the natural and human resources and technical capacity to develop and grow. No! The only reason for our underdevelopment is because our leaders do not usually take the right decisions and where they do those decisions are usually not fully implemented accordingly. The Semlex issue is one of such bad decisions because the Gambia indeed does not need to contract Semlex. There are far more risks than benefits in contracting Semlex.
Let us not take things for granted or remain indifferent once again. Let us not allow misguided pro-government individuals to mislead and distort the issues due to their myopic understanding. We hope the Barrow Government itself will not listen to such misguided voices but save itself the same calamity that had befallen previous leaders and governments thanks to such voices of patronage and dishonesty.
The Semlex contract must be scrapped and better alternatives sought for the production of national documents. Give the contact to local companies or to public corporations or create one.
For the Gambia Our Homeland.