Ebrima Sillah, the Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure

By Yankuba Jallow and Momodou Jarju

Ebrima Sillah, the Minister of Information and Ebrima G. Sunkareh, the Government’s Spokesperson, at a press conference on Saturaday, 30th March, 2019 dilated on issues regarding the dismissal of Chiefs, land disputes,  the ‘anonymous factory in Nyambai Forest and investigation into the death of Haruna Jatta, issues that have plagued the nation.

According to the Coalition’s manifesto, the election of the chiefs will be reinstated in the Laws of the country, instead of the President acting on his powers to appoint or remove them: This provision however, is yet to be amended.

The Government of President Adama Barrow has removed over seven Chiefs since coming into office in 2017. These include the Chiefs of Foni Bintang Karanai, Sami, Kombo South, Kombo North, Ngayen Sannjal, Kombo East, Foni Bondali and Lower Saloum.

Foroyaa explained to the Minister that instead of making provisions for the election of Chiefs and alkalos, Gambians have seen their removal by the President and Minister of Lands and Regional Government, contrary to what they were promised during the election campaign; that even the retirement of the Chief of Sabach Sanjal, has not been provided for by Law. Foroyaa asked the Minister if the removal of the Chiefs will be reversed of retained? This how the rest of the questions and answers unfolded:

Minister Sillah: ‘‘Thank you very much for the question. I guess you know this Government is still using the same 1997 Constitution. We have the Constitutional Review Process ongoing, but as at now what we have available, is for the President or public officials who have the power or mandate as enshrined in the Constitution to act lawfully regarding the removal of Chiefs for whatever they may have done. Of course the Constitution empowers them to do so. Sometimes you have to understand that we cannot come out into the public to tell you that we remove you because of one reason or another. This is a country where everyone is related. I have not seen where a Chief was removed because of political reasons as we used to have in this country. Probably they must have done something that warrants their removal although I do not know what they have done. Their removal was lawful and that we can say for certainty.’’

Foroyaa: ‘‘The removal of Chiefs is provided for in the Local Government Act under Section 136 that the President may remove them on grounds of misconduct or incompetence, or inability to perform the functions of their offices for any cause, whether arising from infirmity of mind or body or otherwise.’’

Minister Sillah: ‘‘I think that is what I have explained and the Constitutional Review Process is still ongoing and am sure you are following. They are now going to the Diaspora to continue with their consultation with Gambians. After the draft will be ready and it will be reviewed. But so long as we have the 1997 Constitution in place, we have to work with that. I do not have an explanation for their sackings because I was not working in the Government by then. I do not know the circumstances that led to their sackings but I can find out.

Foroyaa: ‘‘The Chief of Sabach Sanjal was removed from office by the President on retirement bases and this is not provided for in our laws under section 136 of the Act.’’

Minister Sillah: ‘‘This is what you are telling me. Where is the proof? You cannot tell me that the President has sacked a person when that person has reached the age of retirement.’’

Foroyaa: ‘‘It was what your Government communicated to the Chiefs.’’

Minister Sillah: ‘‘Which Government?’’

Foroyaa: ‘‘Your government.’’

Minister Sillah: I think you are now into speculation. Where is your proof? The purpose of the Press Conference is to clarify issues and we do not act on hearsay and speculation.

(Government Spokesperson) Ibrahima Sankareh: ‘‘It would interest you to know that our Government does not appoint Chiefs on party lines. In fact there are Chiefs serving who are adversely mentioned before the TRRC by some witnesses. A transition is not always easy. I know of certain circumstances in the First Republic (during the Government of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara), where elected Chiefs were removed and replaced by others based on political lines. There were jurisdictions in the Gambia, were Chiefs were never elected and have nothing to do with Chiefs.’’

He continued that Government was able to solve the Taneneh problem by allocating land to Seedou Barrow who claimed ownership of a certain area of Taneneh; that Government has engaged the people of Taneneh into dialogue, which has helped resolve the land dispute in that community.

He said the Gunjur problem was an unfortunate situation; that the problem has existed since the time of ex-President Jawara. “Government cannot solve all these problems alone,” Saknareh said; that Government will engage local authorities like Chiefs and Village Development Committees (VDCs), into a dialogue to resolve the issue.

Foroyaa: ‘‘Land disputes involving individuals, groups or even communities are commonplace in this country, which sometimes ends up in violent clashes. Most of situation regarding these land disputes is that they are either in Court, or have already been dealt with by the Courts and therefor, cannot be handled by the Land Commission. As a matter of urgency, will Government not consider setting up a body such as another Commission to deal with this matter?’’

Minister Sillah: ‘‘I am happy that you acknowledge that these land cases that we have to deal with, were inherited by the present Government. The Gunjur land dispute was an unfortunate situation and we wish it did not happen. The matter is before the Court and I do not want to talk about it because it is before Court. I want to urge communities to respect the verdict of the Courts. As citizens, we have to respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law including the verdict of the Courts. Therefore, I expect citizens to respect the decisions of the Courts. We want to discourage people from taking the law into their own hands. Unfortunately, as a Government, we cannot interfere with a Court decision. Sometimes, you do not have to be happy to accept it. We should all be happy that we have gone through a judicial process, an arbitration process. We have to accept it as the decision of the Courts.’’

Foroyaa: ‘‘Of course the decisions of the Courts are to be respected. My concern here is that some of the decision of the Courts is that a whole or section of communities, have been noticed and told to vacate. This may render most of these people homeless. Does your Government have anything to do to negotiate between communities regarding such situations?’’

Minister Sillah: The decisions of the Courts must be respected. We are very much concerned about land issues. We will engage local authorities like the VDCs so that the issues can be resolved amicably.’’

On the ‘Anonymous’ Factory in Nyambai Forest

The Minister denied reports of an anonymous Chinese factory operating at Nyambai Forest. He stressed that there is no anonymous business entity in the country.

“I don’t think is a factory and also in this country there is nothing like an anonymous business entity that as you say is operating openly,” he asserted.

Last week Foroyaa reported that staff of the Forestry Department at Brikama accused the said factory that burns tires within the periphery of Nyambai Forest of polluting the environment.

‘‘The factory’s main gates are always kept closed and at night, we see black smoke coming from inside the factory,” the Forest Park officials said.

The factory manager denied Foroyaa entry upon arrival at the place but confirmed that they burn waste tires at the said factory.

However the Manager said he does not know what the Chinese produce from the old tire.

“The owners of the factory are a couple from China. They have travelled few days ago and before leaving, they told me not to allow anybody to enter until they return. We bring old tires and burn them, while the Chinese couple process the burnt product. I do not know where they sell the product or which country they export it to, after burning waste tires,’’ the factory Manager said.

All other Companies within their vicinity open their gates to anyone who comes to enquire or do business with them. There is no signboard showing what the factory does as business or what they produce and/or export within or outside the country.

However, Mr. Sillah said the fact that one can locate the premises of the business and see what they are doing explains that it is not an anonymous business.

He added: “It is not an anonymous company or a factory. What I heard and I was able to contact the ministry of the environment and forestry over this, although I’m waiting for answers because I saw it on Foroyaa last week and I thought it is an important duty for us to clarify some of those issues. I think some people are using it as a spot to collect some of these tires that are thrown across the country in the streets and they are seen as environmental hazard.”

Speaking further Sillah said the alleged anonymous factory is “recycling them (tires/plastics) into maybe dustbins or stuffs like that and of course anything that has to do with burning plastic.”

He said the smoke produced from the burning of tires maybe unpleasant to the people around.

“But I’m not very sure about the facts around it. I hope by Monday I should be able to get tangible answers to this and I would definitely supply you with the right answers.”

He emphasized that there is nothing like anonymous factory because it is operating openly.

About Haruna Jatta’s Death

It is one year nine months since Haruna Jatta died who was allegedly shot to death together with nine others who sustained wounds by ECOMIG forces in a riot at Kanilai, the village of former dictator Yahya Jammeh on 3 June 2017. Mr. Jatta died the following day June 4 2017.

On June 4 2018 report emerged from the deceased’s family threatening to sue Barrow-led government to the country’s Supreme Court, ECOWAS, AU and the UN for failing to investigate the matter after one year of his death.

When quizzed about the status of the investigation about the matter, Minister Sillah said since the family of the deceased wants to make the matter a case of litigation before a court of law he cannot, as a public official, comment on that matter because it can be prejudicial.

“Whatever I say here can be used as evidence that this is the position of the government. Now that the investigation is ongoing let us wait for the outcome of that investigation and then if the family takes the matter to court, because taking a case before a court is a fundamental right but defending yourself also is a right.

“Secondly if the family decides that they are going to take the matter to court I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on that process because we respect the right of every Gambian to use the courts as a resort to get answers to some of the issues that they are not happy with,” Sillah said.

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