GAMBIA: Corruption commission begins hearings, then stops for lavish state celebration
BANJUL, 20 July 2004 (IRIN) - Gambia's anti-corruption commission has begun hearings in the capital Banjul, with ministers publicly detailing how they paid for their cars, their wives' jewellery and the kitchen microwaves to the seven-member panel.
The commission is part of President Yahya Jammeh's "Operation No Compromise" and has been billed as the first time a sitting African government is probing itself.
Over the next three months, the commission, which is chaired by a Nigerian judge, will look into the assets of active and retired ministers and senior military officials during Jammeh's 10-year reign.
But no elected member of parliament will have to appear and neither will the president.
Some Gambians are questioning what real impact the commission will have and are sceptical about the timing of the hearings. They started on Monday and adjourned just 24 hours later to make way for lavish celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of Jammeh taking power in a military coup on 22 July 1994.
Media reports have put the cost of the celebrations at 80 million dalasi (US$ 2.7 million). An official on the National Organising Committee told IRIN that a host of parades had been planned, as well as dinners for visiting heads of states.
Special vehicles had been bought to ferry dignitaries around and the government was footing the bill for a nine-nation celebratory football tournament, the official added. He declined to confirm the total cost.
"I think this is just a process designed to divert attention away from the president's current problems," was political analyst Ebou Sillah's verdict on the commission.
"The economy is a shambles, good governance is in question and Gambians are finding it increasingly difficult to live," he told IRIN on Tuesday.
Banjul resident Njundou Bah agreed, saying he didn't expect the commission's report would ever see the light of day.
"A similar commission was set up to probe the affairs of former regime ministers soon after the 1994 coup but the report was never made public as promised, so why should we be optimistic about this one?" he asked.
Meanwhile, Gambian newspaper The Independent criticised the president's exemption from testifying.
"People would like to know how he was able to transform himself from a poor army lieutenant in 1994 to one of the richest men in the sub-region today," it wrote in a recent editorial.
"Indeed if President Jammeh suspects some of his colleagues of dipping their hands into the pie, then he should know that unless he tells us the sources of his wealth, people would conclude that he is also doing exactly that," the daily continued.
But not everyone on the streets of Banjul was so critical of the new anti-corruption commission.
"It will prove to all the doubters that President Jammeh is serious about tackling government corruption," Jalamang Susso, an unemployed youth, told IRIN.
The commission started its hearings about two months after Baba Jobe, a one-time presidential aide and House Majority Leader, was imprisoned for economic crimes. These included his failure to pay import duties and other business taxes.
At the end of last year Jammeh sacked his information minister, Yankuba Touray. No official explanation was given but intelligence sources linked the dismissal of Touray, who also served as tourism minister, to an alleged illegal land deal involving a site reserved for Gambia's tourism development.
One of the first on the stand before the corruption commission on Monday was the current Communications Minister, Amadou Janneh.
In his testimony, Janneh said he had put away about 50,000 dalasi ($US 1,700) in a savings account since he began working for the government in April and had bought US$ 50 worth of jewellery in Egypt for his wife.
When asked about a house he was building in neighbouring Senegal, he said he had acquired the plot of land five years ago, well before becoming minister.
"The financing of the building, which is now near completion, is coming from my wife in the USA,” Janneh told the commission, adding that his refrigerator, microwave and generator had all been bought before he became minister for a total estimated cost of 11,500 dalasi (US$ 392).
He said he had taken no personal loans from the government, explaining that his internet cafe and telephone centre had been set up with his earnings from 10 years of lecturing in the United States
“I have not helped any company to secure government contracts nor have I benefited from any contract awarded by me," the minister testified.
Gambia's finance minister, sports minister and works minister also detailed their assets to the commission before it adjourned until next Tuesday.