Trucks of cement at border released amid looming cement scarcity

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By Assan Bah

The Cement Importers and Traders Association (CITA) say government decided to release over three-hundred truck loads of cement at the Farafenni border.  This follows government’s decision to increase the import duty from D30 to D180 which brought mixed reactions from citizens and businessmen, some welcoming it while others criticized it.

This decision by the government later left many of trucks stranded at the Gambia – Senegal border after insisting to paying the D180 per bag. After being held at the said borders for about three weeks the government of the Gambia through the Ministry of Trade, Industry, Regional Integration and Employment on June 8, 2024 gave instructions to release all cement trucks held at the boarder which it said was to alleviate the stockpile at the border.

The Ministry however, said the action is a one-time gesture aimed solely at clearing the existing backlog. “The existing measures for bagged cement imported from outside the Gambia will remain in force immediately after the release of the current loaded trucks,” the release said.

The Cement Importers and Traders Association (CITA) in a press conference on Sunday, June 9, 2024 however, said government took the decision to release their Lorries (trucks) because there was a looming cement scarcity in the country. CITA is an association of importers of cement that has been bagged from Senegal while some companies like Jah Oil imports cement powder and bag it in The Gambia.

Reading a statement on behalf of the association, Momodou Jobe, the Secretary General of the Cement Importers and Traders Association (CITA) said the recent cabinet directive to increase cement import duties by D150, (a 500% increase) have both directly and indirectly affected the all Gambian consumers in one way or the other as he reported that within the three weeks price of cement has gone up and some parts of the country have also witnessed cement shortage.

Highlighting some of the factors which they believed were responsible for government’s decision to release their trucks by paying D30 he said: “Make no mistake, the main reason the government is releasing the stockpile at the border after holding us hostage for more than 3 weeks is because cement is becoming scarce….. There is almost no cement; a key issue we continue to raise because the large-scale importers have little to no coverage in the provinces.”

He said another ‘driving’ factor was the significant increased of the price of cement in a short period which he said affected the government as it was struggling to access adequate supply of cement for its projects in the provinces.

“The price of cement in most areas has jumped by D60 to almost D440 retail. In Basse, the price of cement, if you can find it, is as high as D550. Let’s put this plainly, since everyone imports cement, the government’s only objective should be to maximize the supply of cement thus lowering the cost for construction and ultimately, rent prices.

Jobe further said that the directive being pursued will block the importation of bagged cement via road from African countries, “while continuing to subsidize the importation of powder cement via vessel from distant European markets, contradicting The Gambia’s commitment to foster intra-Africa trade.

“As a country, we cannot avoid the importation of cement because unfortunately, we do not have the raw materials to manufacture cement economically,” he said.

To sum up he emphasized that the government wants to ban cement from Senegal, and that they want factories that bag cement in the Gambia to be the sole importers of cement regardless of the cost to the Gambian people, the economic impact to the construction industry, or the impact to the small and medium size businesses whom he called the breadbasket of this country.

He however, reported they are currently holding dialogue with the government and they will continue to engage in ‘good faith.

He further said the policy is poorly planned and ‘extremely’ short-sighted. “We directly employ more than 3,000 individuals, from the drivers, their apprentices and the labourers who load and unload the cement. The bulk cement importers employ less than 800 people directly…… Are our 3,000 direct employees not human beings who must support their families?

“Why are they not relevant? We can appreciate the complexities of our trade relationship with Senegal and the need for a more balanced trade agreement with Senegal. Sign us up, we are in full support. But let’s be honest, this is about protecting the business interests of one person. If we are going to ban imports from Senegal, perhaps we should turn away the basalt, or the sand as well. Do we not have farmers in the Gambia or a chicken or cashew processing factory that find it difficult to compete with cheaper imports?

“Maybe these industries should be protected and we should ban the import of process cashew or chicken. Where is the outcry for those industries or the farmers and their families? Let’s not fool ourselves; let’s not forget that the logistics industry provides a two-way service. If hundreds of trucks no longer go to Senegal, how will we export the chicken feed or the peanuts to Senegal?

“The two-way traffic allows Gambians to export at a more economical transportation cost. Not only will the price of cement skyrocket, the price to ship anything to Senegal will also skyrocket. Perhaps the biggest oversight is our contribution of more than D340 million Dalasi per quarter or D1.3 billion through import duties, bridge, and fuel tax.

He denied the claim that importers of bagged cement are responsible for the appreciation of the CFA.

He said: “the CFA is pegged to the Euro, it is the Dalasi that is devaluing against the Euro and all major global currencies.”

“And when the bulk importers buy cement from Europe, do they not use Euros, the proxy for the CFA?” he added.

On his part, Alagie Mbye, the Treasurer of CITA, refuted claims or reports that they[importers] are predominantly foreigners and they don’t usually pay the right duties at the boarder saying that claim undermines the work of the customs officers.

He added: “Before the import duty was increase a bag of cement was costing D380 in Basse but it is now D500.”

He called on the government to immediately return the import tariff to where it was before (D30 per bag).

Meanwhile, this reporter conducted a tour to Brikama, Farato and Tallindiing in the West Coast Region and Kanifing Municipality respectively to assess the availability and the price of cement but found out that a bag of cement was sold at D400 in Tallinding and D400 in Farato and Brikama. Some retailers however, reported shortage of cement.