Gambia’s political standoff: economy feels the pinch

A political standoff which erupted in Gambia, a small beautiful nation divided almost into two equal half by a river, has began affecting its economy with business people experiencing slowdown in sales.  

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The Torch’s picture taken at Serrekunda Market

Gambia, a small strip of land divided almost into an equal half by river, prides itself of being Africa’s “smiling coast” but that serenity and peace appeared to have been threatened.

Gambians went to polls on December 1 but small West African country’s President YahyaJammeh who was declared loser said he has rejected the results in its “totality”, plunging the country into a crisis.

Despite Jammeh’s rejection of the results, president elect Adama Barrow has informed journalists that his inauguration will hold on January 19 when Jammeh’s term expires and regional leaders have also vowed to use force should outgoing president refuse to step down.

Since the standoff began, days are unusually long in Banjul and fear and uncertainty on the streets, despite calm and prayers for peace, is apparent as the economy also slows down on an uncertain path.

Amadou Bah, 59, a Gambian national who has a shop at Gambia’s biggest market in Serrekunda, the country’s economic capital said they have “experienced a slowdown in sales”.

“… In my thirty years stay in the Kombo (urban Gambia) I have never seen a state fear that I am seeing today. People are taking their families to the rural areas and some Senegalese are going home,” Bah added.

Meanwhile, some foreign national from Guinea and Senegal have started leaving while some Gambians living in the urban area are sending their families to the rural area in anticipation of violence.

A local official at one of the busiest commercial vehicle garages in Serrekunda told The Torch that lots of people are leaving for Guinea Conakry, Senegal and other rural communities within the country.

Gambia has never experienced war since her independence in 1965 though it witnessed a mutiny led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang in 1981 where hundreds of people have lost their lives.

Tourist cancellations

The acting chairperson of the Gambia Hotel Association and general manager at one of the country’s leading hotels, Senegambia, have told The Torch that they have had some tourists cancelled their flights to Gambia because of the ongoing political crisis in the country.

“The last executive meeting we have had shows that all the hotels have been affected by cancellations. We are lucky that the cancellations are in the few now,” Bunama Njie told The Torch.

Tourism is the second main contributor to Gambia’s Gross Domestic Product (20%) after agriculture.

“We are now engaging our partners to assure them that Gambia is still safe and shall continue to be safe as a tourism heaven despite a few hitches we are having,” Njie added.

The business community has already seen the “writings on the wall”, Njie said, which was why the hotel association have issued a statement demanding that Jammeh steps down.

“By this time you should have seen lots of tourists even outside the hotels here but that is not the case. Even the Christmas celebration this year was very boring,” Lamin Sonko, a security at Senegambia for over 7 years, told The Torch.

The business community in the country has already voiced it concerns to Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the voice of private investors in the country, its president Muhammed Jagana told The Torch.

“The current impasse in The Gambia is challenging for our members… We spoke to some of our members from the banking industry and others… and they have raised their concerns,” he said.

Jagana said they have spoken to their members across the country before they also release a statement demanding that President Jammeh steps down.

“We can’t quantify the level of the damages but going to hotels that are part of our membership and talking to business people around town, you could see that there is a slowdown,” Jagana said.

“We do hope that on January 19 there will be a peaceful transition of power.”

Moreover, the fish markets most of which is dominated by Senegalese is also feeling the squeeze.

Haddy Nyang a market vendor at the Serekunda fish market said the prices of fish are much higher now compared to previous fees charged by fishermen before the political impasse.

She said the rise in prices was caused by the scarcity of fish in meeting the country’s consumption demands which was triggered by the movement of Senegalese out of the country due to the political situation.

 “If I compare my earning before the crisis started and now I am losing hundreds of Dalasis of profits, due to the high cost and shortages of fish,” Nyang said.

 Economy’s challenges

Gambia, which exports peanuts and rosewood, is one of Africa’s slowest growing economies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said.

The European Union gives the country a budget support but they recently blocked tens of millions of euros in aid due to concerns over human rights violations.

With a budget of little over D14 billion, the country also battles with overstaffed civil service with a wage bill of close to D3 billion.

Gambia’s economy relies heavily on agriculture and tourism which makes is very vulnerable to external shocks.

The country’s agriculture has been affected by erratic rainfall which is attributed to climate change and tourism which is a major foreign currency earner for the economy also slows in 2014 due to Ebola outbreak in the region though Gambia has not registered a single case.

The country also has a public debt at about 110% of its GDP, about $1 billion.

According to a government statistics, 48% of Gambians are living below a dollar per day with an unemployment rate of 30%.

Moreover, agriculture that employs majority of rural Gambians has recently slumped from employing 71 to 31%, showing a decline of 40% in recent times.

More than 10,000 Gambians have arrived in Italy by sea this year, having crossed the Sahara and the Mediterranean, making them more likely than any other African nationals to take what is known locally as “the back way”, EU data shows.

Government critics say the youth unemployment rate in the country which is at 38% is responsible for increased migration to Europe.

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