The 24th December 2022 night witnessed long hours of debate on the 2023 budget characterized by political jargon, rhetoric, and jokes; after which the Honourable members of the National Assembly edged aside to give the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, Hon. Seedy K.M. Keita the platform to respond and shed light on the myriad of questions the lawmakers asked to satisfy their worries before voting to approve the 2023 budget estimates of revenue and expenditure. Before delving into the questions, the Honourable Minister took time to thank the NAMs for ably representing their constituents in their participatory debate. He further noted that preparing the budget was very challenging considering the limited resources available to cater to the unlimited needs this country faces.

Beginning with tax matters, Honourable Keita said despite failing to increase taxes in the 2023 budget, which is a result of giving chance to individuals and businesses to recover from the economic woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry with its partners has managed to increase the revenue base to 18 per cent. He added that the World Bank has given the government an additional supplementary budget of $20 million and the IMF, $27 million to support the government against the negative impacts of COVID-19 and the high fuel prices. These funds, he clarified are meant to support the 2022 budget and would be disbursed before the end of December 2022. Again, due to the high cost of fertilizer and low subsidy, Honourable Keita revealed that the World Bank and World Food Programme have supported an additional $10 million and $2 million respectively to be disbursed next year to support the agricultural sector. These developments were achieved as a result of the hard work and commitment the Minister and his team dedicated to the course of delivering funding for the budget.

Speaking further, Keita said that in terms of revenue projection, domestic tax collection was increased especially at the Ports. This, he continued yielded good output, particularly during the month of October in which GRA collected a record amount of D1.2 billion on tax with the help of the introduction of the ASYCUDA WORLD, an electronic revenue collection system that limits human interaction with cash by GRA. “To further improve the collection of taxes, the Ministry has introduced a revenue directorate to focus purely on taxes and revenues that will cut across all sectors of the economy to ensure resources meant for government are effectively collected,” Keita added. In the same vein, he stated that internal audit has been directed to change their audit programme from expenditure vetting to revenue assurance. Due to the hard times the country is going through, the finance minister exclaimed that expenditures have increased 14 per cent leading to the same percentage increase in deficit caused by a reduction of domestic borrowing by 52 per cent.

On agriculture, the Honourable minister outlined that some structural adjustments are needed in the ministry, noting his confidence in the new minister to work on that. He drew the attention of the parliamentarians to the 2023 draft budget for the ministry which stands at D2.89 billion different from the D400 million for subsidizing fertilizer and groundnut prices. He added that due to concerns raised by NAMs’ committees on the poor performance of most projects, the management of the ministry of finance has decided that the fiduciaries (procurement, disbursement and financial management) of all new projects will be housed at the ministry of finance to ensure proper monitoring of implementation while sector ministries will focus on the programme elements of the projects.

On TRRC funding, Hon. Keita said that D75 million have been allocated for reparations under Centralized Services. On Social sectors, he responded that over 33 per cent of the budget is allocated to education, health, agriculture and infrastructure, with education being the highest as a result of human capital development.

Regarding budget execution, the minister said budget approval is easy but implementation is major a problem. According to him, there is a need to restructure the budget directorate of the ministry of finance into three sections namely: approval, monitoring and reporting sections to ensure ease of operation and more transparency.

Asked about the low budget for the Ministry of Youth and Sport, Hon. Keita argued that youths form 65 % of the country’s population therefore, they cannot be neglected in any way. He cited that youth matters are captured in all sectors of the economy and that budget allocations for those sectors equally address their issues. He added that youth issues are at the highest level of policy discussions, referencing the launch of the national employment policy by the Ministry of Trade that seeks to provide 150, 000 jobs within the next five (5) years, the $68 million of the tourism project, the sports levy, the ability to access funding from the Social Development Fund (SDF) for youth entrepreneurs and a host of other matching grants’ provisions in the ROOTS and GIRAV projects.

Questions on the financing of the national health insurance scheme, Minister Keita told members that the ministry of health is among the highest budgeted sectors and that since the NHIS is under the ministry, it will be very hard on the budget to allocate a concurrent considerable amount to the scheme, saying it’s a gradual process to attaining the desired funding for it. For the establishment of the three embassies in Japan, Sweden and Germany, Minister Keita outlined the importance of such an initiative noting that diplomatic representation is no longer what it used to be. It’s now economic representation as these embassies will generate more resources for the country as well as serve the welfare of the many Gambians residing in those countries and around.

On subvented institutions, Hon. Keita expressed concern that there are 56 of them, and they consume over D4 billion of the budget yet they perform no better than other departments of the central government. He told NAMs that come next year, there will be a review of their performance. This he hopes will improve their level of efficiency. Similarly, he expressed worry about the SOEs saying that their total asset worth is over D33 billion dalasis, yet nothing much is coming out of them except the dividend payment of D270 million and D9 million from GPA and GNPC respectively as a result of intense pressure from the Ministry. He revealed that next year, a dividend payment of D360 million is set for them as an obligation to the government. In addition to this, three of the SOEs (GNPC, SSHFC and GPA) will sign a performance contract with the government to ensure efficiency in their service deliveries.

Other issues such as duty waivers for the construction of the Bertil herding highway and fuel subsidies were mentioned and are said to have accrued over D4 billion, a sum that would have covered many gaps if it were not for the said interventions, the minister reiterated.

The review of the 2023 budget estimates and the subsequent approval or otherwise continues until Saturday 26th December 2022.

Ebrima S. Jallow