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Pulling Back the Budget Curtain: Gambians Become More Involved in Fiscal Processes

For Gambians, the right to free speech and protest is guaranteed in their constitution, yet it is a right that has only recently begun to be truly exercised.

Allegations of human rights abuses against those who dissented or spoke out under the former President Yahya Jammeh’s authoritarian regime are so severe that The Gambia established a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to investigate them.

This repression of political expression was not the only flaw in the Jammeh administration’s governance; the mismanagement of public resources was so egregious that a recent investigative report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project estimates Jammeh stole $1 billion.

Under his 22-year regime, national budget documents and natural resource contracts were incomplete and/or publicly unavailable. Thus, widespread corruption went unchecked for decades by a rubber-stamp legislature and a repressed civil society, which, when coupled with the restraints on freedom of expression, led to Gambians’ distrust of their government.

As the country recovers from Yahya Jammeh’s legacy and begins to build accountable democratic institutions, The Gambia needs to overcome significant deficiencies in the transparent management of its financial resources. National budget documents were incomplete and/or publicly unavailable and procedures for awarding natural resource extraction contracts and licenses remain uncodified. Fiscal transparency is important to building trust between Gambians and their institutions, particularly in the executive branch after the egregious intentional financial mismanagement under the Jammeh administration.

Decades of corruption by the executive branch and lack of oversight from the legislature have understandably engrained a distrust for many Gambians, based on The Gambia’s public corruption score. Rebuilding that trust takes time and requires a multi-pronged approach—education and training of National Assembly members on their role as a check on the executive branch, training the media on the legislature’s role on national finance and budget matters, and educating civil society on the budget process.

In December 2018, IRI hosted a series of trainings for National Assembly members, civil society and the media on The Gambia’s national budget. IRI subsequently sponsored call-in, community radio talk shows that allowed National Assembly members to speak directly with their constituents on the budget and government expenditures.

During these trainings, National Assembly members learned previous legislatures’ missed oversight opportunities and developed responsible fiscal practices to implement. The trainings occurred on the heels of an IRI-sponsored Study Tour to Ghana for the Gambian National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee for a peer-to-peer, fiscal oversight learning.

Trainings for media and civil society improved the participants’ understanding of budget-related topics, such as the political economy, sources of revenue, expenditures, priority sectors and the national development plan. During the training, participants held a conversation around The Gambia’s deficit and foreign funding within The Gambia’s budget. Participants also showed a keen interest in responsible fiscal practices that support small and medium-sized businesses and invest in sustainable infrastructure.

Shortly following the trainings, participants began speaking out on The Gambia’s budget processes in the media. One participant summarized a comparative analysis between the Rwandan and Gambian budget processes in this article, pointing out the time that the respective countries’ legislative bodies are given to debate and dissect the national budgets. Fourteen days is currently the time period available to the Gambian National Assembly, or half the time allotted to Rwanda’s Parliament for the same task. A further notable difference the author points out is that Rwandan stakeholders are consulted throughout the budgetary process, a practice that The Gambia is sorely lacking.

On December 13 in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, a public outcry resulted in many Gambians taking to the street outside of the National Assembly. The protesters’ purpose was simple: they wanted fiscal responsibility and transparency from their government. Sparked by what many activists considered an “unconstitutional” supplemental budget request, officially known as the Supplementary Appropriation Bill, from the executive branch, Gambians took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction. This protest, spread amongst Gambian networks on social media and radio shows, was organized under the name of “#OccupyNA.”

Despite the lack of a precedent for the National Assembly to reject or challenge the executive branch’s budget requests in The Gambia, National Assembly members began immediately paying attention to the “#OccupyNA” protest. One National Assembly member, Halifa Sallah, even appeared outside of the National Assembly to speak directly to the protesters, asking them to “listen to what the individual [National Assembly] members say,” and not to “paint them with the same brush” in a plea for citizens to trust the process.

Members of the National Assembly later converged in the Chambers to consider the Supplementary Appropriation Bill after the Public and Finance Committee concluded its analysis of the Bill and submitted its findings. Barely a few hours into the debate, members of the National Assembly voted on the bill, unanimously rejecting it. Honorable Halifa Sallah best summarized the logic behind the overwhelming rejection by stating that “[the National Assembly] cannot continue to encourage financial indiscipline, we serve the national interest.”

This vote was hailed as a success by many Gambians, generating an enormous amount of positive discussion on Gambian talk shows and social media. It signaled a break from past ineffective oversight that allowed the previous regime to plunder the country’s financial and natural resources.

IRI is continuing to assist Gambians and their institutions – the National Assembly, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, the National Audit Office, the media and civil society – as they continue to improve transparency in their country’s management of financial and natural resources. Improved fiscal transparency in The Gambia is deeply connected to Gambians trust in their institutions and the clear roles that both citizens and their elected officials play in the democratic process. The executive branch must conduct timely, accurate audits and make reports available to the National Assembly and the public; the legislature needs to serve as a check on the executive and convey budgetary priorities to their constituents; and the electorate must hold both the legislature and the executive accountable.

This development of trust in institutions is essential in a nascent democracy such as The Gambia, to strengthen the gains made since the ouster of Jammeh and prevent backsliding, an unfortunate reality in an era where globally democracy “faces its most serious crisis in decades,” according to Freedom House. Thus, it all the more important for The Gambia to be not only ‘The Smiling Coast,’ but a smiling example of democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has an average score of 32 out of 100 in the recent Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.