Picture Details: Mustapha K. Darboe

Gov’t declines to reveal breakdown of Covid-19 expenditure

Between March and August, authorities have spent D1.133 billion on Covid 19 activities. Aside from D845 million Finance Ministry spent on food aid to Gambians, the health ministry spent D413 million on allowances, hotels, vehicles, food, fuel, among others, as of October 19

Government institutions responsible for the spending of over a billion dalasi approved for the fight against Covid-19 have declined requests to reveal a breakdown of their expenditure. Since early August, Malagen has written a letter to the Ministry of Finance and later to Accountant General’s Departments and Ministry of Health but all the institutions have declined to release the data.

According to an expenditure report released by the Finance Ministry in August, the government has spent D1.133 billion on Covid-19 activities since March.

The Finance Ministry directed the Paper to write to the Accountant General’s Department (AGD). However, the Accountant General Momodou Lamin Bah would tell Malagen, after receiving the letter, through a phone call that they could only get the data at the spending agencies like the Health Ministry even though all payments are made from his Department.

Meanwhile, on August 27, Muhamadou Lamin Jaiteh, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health, who had promised to give the Paper the information they had requested, changed his position. Jaiteh texted Malagen reporter on August 26 stating that they have spent over D225 million as of August 1, without any further detail. But the reporter called him back to inform him that what was sought was a breakdown of expenditure.

But when the reporter visited Jaiteh at his office on August 27, he claimed that even though they have “nothing to hide”, they don’t have the authority to release the data being sought.  

“I just discussed it with the minister. He has not given me the authority to give the information. And I have to consult the Ministry of Finance on those figures because they gave us the money and if we spent the money, we report to them…,” said Jaiteh, even though the reporter first placed a request to Finance and Accountant General’s before the Health Ministry. Jaiteh interestingly expressed concern that there would be a problem if his expenditure report does not tally with the information at Finance.

“The expenditure report, I owe it to them (Finance Ministry), not you… If I have to give it to you, I need to get their consent to give it to you,” claimed Jaiteh.

Both Jaiteh and the health minister Ahmadou Lamin Samateh insinuated that the reporter does not have the mandate to seek the information being sought

Figures don’t make sense

By end of August, the Finance Ministry has spent D1.133 billion on covid 19 related activities, according to the data released on the Ministry’s website. However, it is not explained what these monies are spent on. After over 2 months of request, government agencies including finance ministry, health ministry and communication ministry claimed the data is not ready. However, the PS of health ministry confirmed to Malagen that he had given the information to his minister Samateh and Ebrima Sillah, who also sits on the Covid 19 cabinet sub-committee which also had the data.

Despite this difficulty in access to the information, there are few murky issues Malagen discovered. There is a significant gap in expenditure recorded at the Finance and Health Ministries. On August 31, officials at the budget directorate at the Ministry of Finance told Malagen that the Ministry of Health has spent as of end July, under Covid-19 expenditure budget line, D273, 360, 000 out of its approved D750 million. Whereas, at the Ministry of Health, PS Jaiteh claimed they have spent D225 million as of August 1, leaving an explained gap of D48 million.

Again, by end of September Malagen placed another request for a breakdown of Covid 19 expenditure. However, PS Jaiteh declined to provide a breakdown again. But he told Malagen that they have spent D257 million. This amount excludes the D100 million they have added onto a World Bank donated $10 million for the purchase of medical equipment from Turkey.

Meanwhile, according to the data from the budget directorate at the Ministry of Finance, as of September 30, the Health Ministry has spent D288 million of its D750 million approved Covid 19 budget.

Perhaps, even confusing, the information minister Ebrima Sillah told journalists few weeks ago that the Health Ministry has spent D296, 241, 332 as of September 25. “This amount includes the D100 million that was given to the health sector for support to frontline workers and other expenditures in relation to the procurement of fuel and also expenditure on other areas relating to quarantine,” said Sillah. This data is different from what Malagen obtained from Finance Ministry and Health Ministry as expenses within the period in question. However, Sillah claimed he quoted the figure from a “very bulky” document that he has been working to make available to journalists. It has been almost a month since.

A sourceat Health Ministry had informed Malagen that on October 15, officials at Finance Ministry had raised concerns over certain expenditure registered by the Health Ministry that could not be explained. We cannot independently verify these claims.

Meanwhile, for anti-corruption activist, Marr Nyang, the difference in figures recorded at the Finance and Health ministries is not strange. “On April 29th 2020, the Ministry of Health reported to parliament that D32,317,540 was expended on COVID-19 from the government,” said Nyang who leads an anti-corruption organization, Gambia Participates.

“Surprisingly, the Ministry of Finance in its 12th May 2020 expenditure press release reported an expenditure of D31,244,176. A difference of over D1 million. I believe these reports are confusing and it exposes the lack of transparency on COVID-19 fund expenditure.”

And by October 19, the Health Ministry has spent D413 million, according to information from Finance Ministry.  

Where did they raise the money for food aid?

On May 6, a drama erupted between Finance Minister Mambury Njie and Sidia Jatta, a member of the Finance and Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly over the legality of virement, a transfer of budget allocation from one entity to another. Njie claimed he raised D500 million—which later increased to D750 million through a supplementary appropriation in July—through virement to take care of Gambia’s Covid-19 response expenditure.

He also claimed he raised D734 million which would later increase to D845 million through savings Gambia made from debt deferrals and debt service. The burgeoning of the budget for food aid is blamed on logistics involved in distributing food commodities.

“We did not act outside the budget approved by the National Assembly,” said Njie. The food aid which was to take care of 84% of needy Gambian households was launched in April.

However, according to the data Malagen got from the spokesperson of the Finance Ministry Ebrima Jallow, the country benefited from four debt deferrals, amounting to D287.2 million.

These were D82.8 million from Ecowas Bank for Investment and Development, D19.3 million from Saudi Fund for Development, D172.6 million from Kuwaiti Fund for Arab Economic Development and D12.3 million from Peoples Republic of China.

Additionally, the International Monetary Fund granted the country a debt relief amounting to US$2.9 million (D150.2 million). The total of debt deferral and debt relief amounts to D437 million and not D734 million.

Malagen understands government requested debt referrals from OPEC but that was yet to materialise as of October 19. Nevertheless, through the supplementary appropriation in July, lawmakers have made extra money available to finance the increase in the budget of food aid by D111 million. This was after the expenditure was already made.

Hand Washing

What happens to student package?

On April 30, Gambian authorities issued a statement, promising students abroad a D29.1 million relief package because of the impact Covid 19 has on economies across the world. According to Finance Ministry, D12, 915, 880 has been allocated to benefit 836 non-government funded students while D16.2 million will go to the government-funded scholarship package.  

On October 5, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology (MoHERST), Mod Secka, told Malagen that their D29.1 million was not sufficient. In July, the Ministry made a request for another D20 million. The D20 million was in a D2.8 billion supplementary appropriation passed by lawmakers in July

Though Secka said the funds— $300 for each student— are entirely disbursed, some students still claim they have not received theirs.

On October 15, the Ministry issued a statement on its Facebook page saying they have made payments amounting to D32, 915, 880 to non-government funded Gambian students studying abroad. Malagen could not independently verify this and the requests the paper has made for a list of names of beneficiaries were declined by PS Secka.

“Notwithstanding, MoHERST is aware of concerns and challenges raised by students studying abroad; especially with regard to the relief package not reaching their end,” said the Ministry.

“The Ministry wants to reassure students that funds have already been released from its end. Students who are yet to receive their shares from the stimulus package should contact and make follow-ups with The Gambian embassies in their respective countries of study.”

For Muctar Jallow, a Gambian student in Morocco, substantial amounts of the funds are still unaccounted for. “The actual amount budgeted for this relief package is D49.1 million and so far, over 16 million dalasis isn’t accounted for,” said Jallow.