Commentary: The Gambia Supplementary Appropriation Bill - By: Musa VAL Banja
On Wednesday 28 July 2021, the Gambia National Assembly began debating a supplementary bill to plug the budget deficit for the year running from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021, both dates inclusive. The Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia (1997) allows the government through the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs to request for additional money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund, or to borrow internally or externally to meet budgetary shortfalls should they occur before the end of the financial year. Usually, before considering any debt options, the first alternative is to obtain money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. When the Consolidated Revenue Fund has no money, the government then considers borrowing internally through the sale of treasury bills. The main external lenders are the World Bank, the IMF, the African Development Fund and the ECOWAS. In 2021, The Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs reported that the government had encountered a budget deficit of D1, 767,400,000.00. The minister therefore presented a bill to the National Assembly seeking the funds to finance the government operations and to meet development plans. This paper is a critique of the Supplementary Appropriation Bill as presented by the minister and under debate in the National Assembly.
First, the Supplementary Appropriation Bill meets the requirements of the Constitution of the Gambia. The Constitution provides for the government to request for additional funds when the budget falls short of actual expenditures. The Bill provided a complete breakdown of the supplementary budget. Readers are therefore able to see clearly the areas that benefit from the budget. Beyond the constitutional compliance in rationale and presentation, the supplementary budget has many failings.
However, the first anomaly with the Supplementary Appropriation Bill is the disconnection between the rationale presented by the minister and the actual allocations for the additional funds. In his speech and Bill, the minister explained the need for the supplementary funds to have arisen from the uncertainty of expenditures due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The rationale was that Covid-19 had created unbudgeted expenses and increased costs of budgeted expenses. Surprisingly, the supplementary budget curiously lacks any allocation for fighting the Covid-19 Pandemic. Since March 2020, The Gambia had registered 6,900 cases of Coronavirus with 188 deaths at the end of July 2021 (WHO 2021). The government had announced that there had been an upsurge of the disease in the two-month period of June-July 2021. It is therefore curious why no allocation has been made for combating the disease. Granted, the Ministry of Health is slated to receive D134, 000,000.00 for the purchase of ambulances. The ambulances will inevitably help fight the disease nominally as it will help in combatting any other diseases. The rising cases, the contagious nature and the fatal nature of coronavirus however ought to have made it obvious that a special fund for the disease should have been one of the allocations. In its absence and with it used as the rationale for the Supplementary Budget, one has no choice but to question the honesty of the government in requesting for more funds and in fighting the disease.
In addition, The Gambia suffered a severe windstorm on the night of Wednesday/Thursday 7/8 July 2021. The windstorm killed at least 10 people and displaced more than 1,531 persons (Darboe 2021). The natural disaster affected more than 3,140 directly by flattening their homes and destroying their livelihoods. Other people were affected indirectly through disruption on electricity and water supply. Waste was also a problem with the outbreak of disease becoming a real risk. Surprisingly, despite the Supplementary Bill being introduced the same month, the Ministry of Finance did not make any allocation for the persons affected by the windstorm. No allocation had also been made for the restoration of services, many of which were still dysfunctional. The neglect comes despite the pledge by the government to help all the affected persons return to their normal lives (OCHA 2021). The priorities of the government therefore come into question with the exclusion of the victims of the storm.
The insensitive priorities of the government of Gambia also come to the fore in the exclusion of agriculture in the supplementary budget. The Gambia suffers perennial famine because of its unconducive climate with little rainfall. Most Gambians cannot afford three meals a day and a balanced diet is therefore a mirage (IFRC 2021). Agriculture is the source of food, the most basic of human needs. Any country in the position of the Gambia would therefore strive to develop innovative agricultural technologies to combat famine. For instance, the Gambian farmers and the whole population would benefit much through irrigation projects. Surprisingly, such a simple solution has always escaped the government planners. Even more vexing is the allocation of huge chunks of money for the purchase of vehicles for governors when the governors already have vehicles they are currently using. The plight of the Gambian people therefore seems unimportant for the government. While the majority of the population cannot afford food, the government is buying highly paid governors vehicles.
Besides, the Supplementary Appropriation Bill does not include any direct allocation for the education sector. The allocation for the education ministry is intended to offset debts owed to the University of the Gambia for government scholarships. The education system of the Gambia faces many problems including an inappropriate syllabus to a high cost of education at all levels. The illiteracy rates in Gambia still stand at 33% in 2021 (World Bank 2021). Instead of the government working to lower the illiteracy rate, it ignores it. In addition, the allocation for the scholarships is a paltry D50, 000,000.00. The supplementary budget thus fails in responding to the needs of the people and instead focuses on providing comforts for the leadership.
Last, the Supplementary Appropriation Bill splits the finances between recurrent expenditure and development halfway. The recurrent expenditure receives the allocation of D726, 939, 218.10 with development receiving an allocation of D773,060,781.90. Recurrent expenditure does not go into improving the lives of the people. The purpose of the government is to improve the living standards of the population while providing essential services. The little allocation for development matching the allocation for recurrent expenditure is reflective of a bloated government that is not serving the needs of the taxpayers. The rate of development with such allocations will therefore be slow for the foreseeable future. For a developing country such as the Gambia, a substantially large allocation needs to go to development.
In conclusion, the supplementary budget is a constitutional measure to enable the government to continue providing services in the face of a shortfall in the annual budget. The Bill thus met all the legal requirements for presentation to the National Assembly. On the other hand, the Bill excluded the Covid-19 Pandemic that was its rationale. It also failed to assist the victims of the July 2021 windstorm. It excluded agriculture, a key sector for the survival of the nation. Last, the budget has a high proportion of it allocated for recurrent expenditure. The government therefore failed to respond to the needs of the people in the allocations of the supplementary budget.