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Gambia’s President ignores severe food crisis

 INSP 11 June 2019

Poverty is on the rise in Gambia, yet the tiny West African state’s President Jammeh is showing no signs of abandoning his lavish life style, even as half of the country’s population go hungry. (1105 Words) - By Saikou Jammeh

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INSP_Gambia food crisis

In Gambia, it is estimated that more than 700,000 people – around 42 per cent of the country’s 1.7 million population – are at risk of going hungry and the situation is expected to deteriorate in the coming months.  Photo: Saikou Jammeh

As President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia announced an award of nearly two million dalasi for the winners of a Quranic memorisation competition, nearly half the population of the country he rules faces going hungry.

Among them is Muhammed Baldeh. "I have only two options," the 44-year-old says, "to sell my sheep and go to Kombo (urban Gambia) to find another job before next year's cropping season, or buy some provisions for our upkeep until we receive aid."

In a country where unemployment is high, the chances of a farmer securing another job at this juncture are slim and, with a food crisis hitting Gambia, Baldeh's future looks bleak. In March this year, the Gambian government declared a national crop failure after a post-harvest assessment of the 2011 farming season.

"I don't have enough food to feed my family."

Farmers witnessed a reduction in crop production of more than 70% and poor harvests of rice, groundnuts, millets, maize and sorghum have left households with just two months of food supplies, instead of the usual four to six months.

The situation has already forced some rural farmers to resort to eating just one meal a day with many selling off their livestock and eating seeds and grain originally set aside for planting. It is estimated that more than 700,000 people - around 42 per cent of the country's 1.7 million population - are at risk of going hungry and the situation is expected to deteriorate in the coming months.

Baldeh lives in a village called Sarre Ngai in the Central River region of the Gambia. He is a farmer, as was his father.  He is supposed to subsist on what he grows on his farms but his farm barely produces enough food at the best of times. "I don't have enough food to feed my entire family. There were inadequate rains and my crops have not performed well. I harvested nothing from my farms."

Baldeh's story reflects that of almost all Gambian farmers. "Often we do not buy much of the imported rice when there are enough rains, says Fatou Jabbi of Tonya Taba village in Jarra West district of the Lower River region of The Gambia. "A hectare of rice can produce about three tons. But with the manner in which our crops have failed this year, we must buy the imported rice. And the trouble is we don't have money [to buy rice] because our farms are our means of survival."

Agriculture employs some 70-80 percent of Gambia's population and contributes the largest share to the country's gross domestic product. The sector is dependent on a three-month rainy season that is both unreliable and erratic. According to the United Nations, 10-12 million people in the Sahelian region are currently affected by drought, bringing a food crisis in the Sahel for the third time in a decade.

"Playing with cash the way he does, means that Yaya is not doing his job as president but just busy amassing wealth."

"This is a real emergency," says Kujejatou Manneh, country director of ActionAid International.  "Gambia is predominantly an agricultural society. With widespread crop failure and food price hikes, the situation will become extremely serious unless emergency measures are put in place immediately."

The Gambian government said it urgently needs US$23m to provide food relief, seeds, and fertilize. Since the declaration of a state of emergency, donations have been received by Gambia's vice president, Isatou Njie Saidy, who doubles as chair of the country's disaster management council. The UN's World Food Programme in Gambia announced it would provide immediate food assistance to 62,500 people in the areas most affected by the recent drought. The response would cover five rural districts. "We need to intervene immediately to avoid a further deterioration in the nutrition status of the most vulnerable, especially women and children. We will provide rice and peas as well as fortified foods that contain important nutrients, such as oil with vitamins A & D, fortified cereal and iodized salt," WFP Gambia Country Director Vitoria Ginja said.

But while the population suffers President Yahya Jammeh's lavish lifestyle continues unabated.

President Jammeh - regarded as a dictator by his critics - has won every presidential election in the country since 1996, two years after a military junta he led ousted the former president, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, in a bloodless coup. But he has since been accused of being responsible for human rights abuses and brutally oppressing political dissent.

Amnesty International has been a leading critic of President Jammeh and has highlighted enforced disappearances of dissenting journalists and opposition party members.

Extrajudicial executions have been routinely carried out in Gambia and Amnesty International has documented cases in which students, journalists and foreign nationals have been killed by security personnel.

President Jammeh has also been accused of spending state money on pet projects and his extravagance extends to flash motors such as Hummers. In 2009, he gave one million dalasi (D1m) to each of the country's under-17 football players after they clinched the African

youth tournament. In March 2012, President Jammeh gave a cash amount of half a million dalasi to Momodou Lamin Bah, aka Egalitarian, a young Gambian musician. The money was earmarked for the release and launch of Egalitarian's solo album entitled 'Dinkendoo', a Mandinka word meaning 'good son', which was a reference to President Jammeh. In 2009, he reportedly gave $30,000 to a Senegalese musician.

On Friday 14 March, submissions began for the young female category of the Quranic memorisation competition, open for students of Arabic-styled schools within the country. Sponsored by President Jammeh, the event is held every three months and this time the winners will receive two million dalasi. Many Gambians are aghast at his antics as the nation struggles. According to Actionaid International's 2011 HungerFree report, the impoverished West African country has no chance of meeting goal one of the MDGs - that is to reduce extreme hunger by half by 2015.

"This is a real emergency!"

The source of President Jammeh's wealth has been of concern to many Gambians for years, even though only few dare publicly query for fear of his oppressive hands. When he came to power through a coup d'etat his slogan at the time was "accountability, transparency and probity," but Sarjo Bayang, a UK based Gambian project development expert, says Jammeh has spent his years in power amassing wealth:

"Playing with raw cash the way he does, means that Yaya is not doing his job as president but just busy amassing wealth." He added that President Jammeh is accountable to people of Gambia and should be brought to book and explain his multiple sources of money.

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