Human Rights News Opinion

National Assembly should enact the Public Officers’ Declaration of Assets, Liabilities & Business Interests & the Anti-Corruption Commission Law

The Gambia needs a new caliber of leadership at all levels. The nation needs competent and honest politicians who operate with integrity and are not simply driven by vengeance, personal gain, or the desire to remain in office for life. These political leaders must be judged based on their capability, moral character, and genuine commitment to public service, as well as their ability to uplift the aspirations and demands of the Gambian citizens. It is a tremendous shame that, just as it has been through the ages, greed and self-interest have destroyed the country.

Since Independence, major corruption and scandals have plagued the Gambia, with the perpetrators persistently evading punishment. This is despite the Special Criminal Bill that was passed in Parliament in 1979 by the former Attorney General Momodou Lamin Saho, as well as the Evaluation of Assets and Prevention of Corrupt Practices Bill, shepherded in 1982 by the former Attorney General Fafa M’bai. Gambia’s asset declaration laws must be formulated without fear or favor to regain the public’s confidence in the government’s integrity. Conflicts of interest or illicit enrichment must be detected.

The National Assembly has been urged to formulate new legislations, including the Anti-Corruption Commission Bill and the Declaration of Assets Bill, and to pass them into law to enforce transparent asset declaration among politicians holding public office and civil servants in high decision-making positions. The goal is to ensure that the public has confidence in those who hold political office.

The recent revelations that former president Yahya Jammeh amassed over $50 million, held 88 bank accounts in his name (or in those of his associates), was associated with 14 companies, and was accused of taking over successful businesses for his gain in his 22-year rule have led to renewed calls for the passing of the Declaration of Assets bill and the Anti-Corruption bill before the National Assembly.

The Gambian people have repeatedly failed, as over the fifty years since Independence, the country has been unable to combat corruption, making it a generational issue. Gambian political leaders born after Independence should enact laws that best work for the next fifty years, building and improving upon the democratic process by combating the cankerworms of corruption in the Gambia by entrenching the rule on Public Officers’ Declaration of Assets, Liabilities, and Business Interests, and the Anti-Corruption Commission law. These laws are vital to accelerating the Gambia’s growth and competitiveness.

Most of our political leaders have left a legacy of greed, selfishness, impunity, and a lack of desire to develop the country or help the people they profess to serve. This is despicable enough, as it hinders the economic growth and development of the Gambia. However, it is more dreadful that, instead of fighting corruption, these leaders are often deeply engaged in dishonesty and exploitation, unscrupulously using their power to entrench and extend their greed and continue plundering the country.

Institutions meant to safeguard the Gambia and be watchdogs against corruption (e.g., the judiciary, police, security services, and the rule of law) are failing the country and instead are selectively serving the interests of the elite classes. This is the legacy the Gambia inherited from its colonial past when such institutions were more often subservient to the all-powerful colonial administrator or governor.

Instead of changing colonial-era institutions, laws, and values for the better, Gambian ruling parties and leaders continue to entrench the deeply compromised governance systems that have held the country back and against which they fought so much, claiming and promising redemption from such chains. As such, over fifty years after its Independence, the Gambia is at a standstill, with greed and self-enriching politics rampant. A centralized political culture highly reminiscent of the colonial administration remains, and this refusal to serve the people destroys the country from within.

The Gambian people’s social contract should not only be limited to the electoral process, but existing politicians should also be accountable. They must transparently declare their assets and liabilities whenever they assume public office. The Gambian people are dying because money meant for healthcare, education, and agriculture is stolen, and hard-earned tax-payer money is misappropriated directly or indirectly by the custodians of our treasury. Rich or poor, male or female, all of us are affected by corruption, but it does not have to be this way. The Gambian people deserve to live in dignity and progress. We walk forward, not backward, and as such, we are growing as a nation.

Despite the lack of legislation to combat corruption, the public’s perception is that corruption in the government has increased with impunity. Indeed, over the past few years, there has been no significant progress, and the latest report by Transparency International confirms that the Gambia has fallen in the ranking to 145 out of 176.

In many respects, after its Independence, the Gambia moved quickly to confront the problem of corruption. However, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) era was inseparable from widespread corruption that took such firm root in the country that ill-gotten gain was flaunted as the norm. When the Special Criminal Court Bill was tabled in Parliament in 1979, then-Attorney General Saho stated: “It is not alarming to say that this country will be destroyed if this cancer [of corruption] is not arrested now.” He continued to state that he made “no apologies for this Bill,” adding, “No stone would be left unturned in the fight to protect the interest of the public from the rapacious mafia within our society.” In 1980, the view was expressed by one Member of Parliament that “more stringent measures such as hand amputation ought to be introduced” to stem the tide of runaway corruption. In an address to accounting personnel of the government in July 1980, a Parliamentary Secretary suggested, according to the Gambia News Bulletin, that embezzlers should be punished by firing squad (Justice Jallow,2012).

It was in this climate of mass disaffection with the PPP government that Kukoi emerged in 1981, and in which Fafa M’bai, Attorney General in 1982, shepherded the Evaluation of Assets and Prevention of Corrupt Practices Bill, which on 31st December 1982 became Act No. 17 of that year. We know what happened to Fafa and his Act when the “rapacious mafia” went to work on him. It is not even persuasive to contend that the “society” perceived “the exercise as being manipulated and used as a political weapon targeted principally against the urban elite of a particular ethnic group.” (Justice Jallow,2012).

Corruption has scarred nearly all aspects of life in the Gambia. All too frequently, middle-level officials are caught and scapegoated. At the same time, the so-called “big fish” continue to go unpunished. The system must only force these upper echelons to be accountable for their actions before the public perceives that things have not improved.

While the main aim of the Declaration of Assets is to prevent corruption, it is also designed to increase transparency and the trust of the public administration, prevent conflicts of interest and illicit enrichment, avoid false accusations of wealth, and monitor the wealth of politicians and public servants. These are valid demands because such individuals hold great power over allocating national resources, and their salaries are paid through general tax contributions.

The Constitution shall regulate the Declaration of Assets and, following international standards, require the President and members of their cabinet to disclose fully all their assets, liabilities, and business interests and those of their spouses held by them or on their behalf. Such disclosure should occur three months from the date of the election or appointment. However, changing the law to require the declaration at the end of the term of office will facilitate greater accountability.

The bill can be added by amending the Constitution to provide, in very general terms, for the verification of declarations and enacting new legislation to establish a detailed framework of rules and sanctions relating to non-declaration, confirmation of words, and the legal consequences of any breaches of constitutional and statutory obligations on the Declaration of Assets.

Strengthening the law cannot guarantee that public funds will not be looted and spirited away by holders of political office and public servants. Gambians also need to take political action by strengthening the powers of the National Assembly and its committees to summon and question the President and other public officials and servants about any suspicious acquisition or accumulation of wealth. We also need to strengthen the protection of investigative journalists, media houses, and whistleblowers because of their vital role in exposing and publicizing the theft of public resources.

Gambian citizens should have the right to view the financial disclosures of all public officials and employees, as well as their spouses and children who are unmarried and living in their households. As such, the Anti-Corruption Commission will publish the financial disclosures of many of the highest-ranking public officials in the government gazette.

The periodic public disclosure of personal assets would help to ensure that unexplained wealth, especially ill-gotten gains, does not go unnoticed. The government of President Adama Barrow has conducted a spate of probes into the corruption of Yahya Jammeh, and the string of corruption cases indicates a severe and alarmingly routine abuse of power and misconduct by public officials. This points to serious structural flaws in the system that have allowed these loopholes to be manipulated for massive fraud and the swindling of public funds. This issue has been plaguing the Gambia’s growth and competitiveness.

Declaring assets behind doors, which occurred in the Gambia under previous governments, no longer suffices, as it reeked of secrecy and opacity instead of promoting transparency and honesty. Asset declarations should be accessible to the public as part of their right to know and be informed instead of being made only internally within the government.

Studies show that an asset declaration open to public scrutiny is a way for the public to ensure leaders do not abuse their power for personal gain. Published information on a person’s assets allows civil society to hold its leaders to account. Making a public declaration of support is an effective anti-corruption tool.

While the Declaration of Assets should be done periodically and kept on record by an effective independent body, it is also appropriate to have forensic accounting experts and investigators monitor the assets periodically. An asset profiling system should be introduced to determine what assets personnel are expected to have, based on their positions, years of service, and present and past payments.

The Gambian society needs to bolster the campaign to enact the Declaration of Assets and the Anti-Corruption bills to build a public understanding of the debilitating effects of corruption in society. Such enactments must be undertaken courageously and impartially to ensure the nation’s well-being. All too often, anti-corruption voices are deemed tainted and lacking in impartiality.

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