Medical items donated to health ministry “auctioned to FaBB” for less than 1% of the value 

The First Lady presides over presentation of medical equipment and assorted items valued at over 6 million dalasi to the Maternity Unit of Essau District Hospital on Monday, November 27, 2023. Picture source: Fatu Network

A 40ft container of medical items that was  donated to the Ministry of Health has been ‘sold’ to the foundation that was established by the wife of the President, Fatou Bah-Barrow. In August 2023, the Fatou Bah Barrow Foundation reportedly bought the container of medical supplies and equipment donated to the Health Ministry by Foundation 221 in an auction conducted by the Customs Department of the Gambia Revenue Authority, whose commissioner— Alhagie K Mbaye— is a board member of FaBB. 

While the donors of the container shipped from the USA said it contained medical items worth $463,830, equivalent to at least D31 million, the Customs Department sold it to FaBB for D200,000 dalasi, less than 1% of its value.

Foundation 221, a  US-registered charity and incorporated in the Gambia in 2022, first made contact with the Ministry of Health in May 2022. This was a pitch for a meeting to discuss future partnership. On June 6, 2022, the Ministry shared with the charity a list of medical equipment and consumables needed in facilities across the country. 

The charity then mobilised medical equipment and consumables valued at close to half a million dollars to support the country’s ailing health sector. In August 2022, the President and the Chief Executive Officer of the charity, Moussa Niang, wrote to the Ministry informing the minister Dr Ahmadou Lamin Samateh that a 40ft container with medical consumables and equipment was enroute. 

The letter to the Ministry was accompanied with a 21-page document containing a list of all the consumables and equipment in the container. The list of items include surgical drapes, surgical gowns, Ambu bags, breathing circuits, nebuliser adaptors, nebulisers, flow inflating resuscitation devices, urological catheters, oxygen tubes, respiratory filters and adaptors, suction pump, breathing therapy unit, infrared thermometer and stethoscope. 

The consignee on the bill of lading seen by The Republic is Muhammadou Lamin Jaiteh, a former permanent secretary at the Ministry currently standing trial on charges of economic crimes. Jaiteh was charged in October 2023, about 2 months after the container was sold. 

The tracking details of the container show it arrived in The Gambia on October 4, 2022, and discharged a day later. On August 7, 2023,about eleven months after the Ministry failed to secure the container’s  release, the Customs officials auctioned it to the FaBB for D200, 000. 

“The container was auctioned in August 2023 with GTR Receipt # 1718815 for D200, 000 to FaBB Foundation,” said a Customs officer who does not want to be named. 

Charity turns to military for solution 

By April 2023, the Foundation 221’s partners started raising questions about the container. “This issue has cost us a lot. The charity has cut funding to its Gambia branch because of this issue,” said Muhammed Marong, the organisation’s spokesperson. Under pressure, and as a last minute desperate attempt, the charity turned to the Gambia military on April 19, 2023 so that they could secure the release of the container. This was two days after the auctioning of the container was published in the gazette, a fact unknown to the charity. 

“The military advised us to tell the Ministry (of Health) to write a letter indicating that they couldn’t clear the container, and authorising other institutions to do so,” said Marong. 

The director of operations of the charity, Buba Sanyang, then informed the Ministry of the military’s request. The sacked Permanent Secretary, Jaiteh, requested to be given fifteen days to clear the container.

It is unclear why the Ministry could not secure the release of the container on time. According to Customs regulations, items imported into the country by charitable foundations and government institutions are exempt from customs duties. 

Jaiteh, the former permanent secretary, claimed that Foundation 221 did not provide information about the container on time. “When I came to be aware of the container, the demurrage was D700, 000. There was no money at the Ministry to pay that,” claimed Jaiteh. 

But documents seen by The Republic contradict Jaiteh’s claims. On December 1, 2022, a clearing agent,  El Mansour, sent a D68, 800 invoice to the Ministry of Health to secure the release of the container. The charges included container scanning, Ports fees and scanning, transportation, handling fees and shipping line’s destination terminal handling charges.  Though the Ministry failed to act  on time, the demurrage charges were D94, 272 at the time the Ministry sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance requesting for a duty waiver.

The Republic confirmed at the tax office that the finance ministry also failed to act on the request for waiver. Meanwhile, the demurrage would swell to about D920, 000 by August 2023 though CMA CGM approved a 40% discount on the charges, according to CMA CGM officials. This remains unpaid to date. 

“I received the lists of materials in the container, attestation listing the amount spent by the charity in dollars and the bill of lading on August 5, 2022. I took the documents to the Minister (Dr Ahmed Lamin Samateh) and the permanent secretary (Mahammed Lamin Jaiteh) that month,” said Sanyang, the charity’s Operations Manager. 

In April 2023, Customs officials gazetted the container, with 27 others, for sale. With medical consumables and equipment valued at close to half a million dollars, the FaBB Foundation, according to Customs officials, reportedly bought the container for D200, 000. 

A letter from Foundation 221 to the Ministry of Health indicating total value of medical items in the container

For donation or for profit? 

On June 28 2024, the Chief  Executive Officer of the FaBB Foundation— Betty Saine— told The Republic: “We didn’t buy any container. It was donated to us. The container was being auctioned and someone said I am buying it on behalf of FaBB…” 

Saine said they donated the items to Central Medical Store but she could neither remember when nor the name of their generous donor who bought the container at the auction. “For that, you should go back to Custom,” said Saine. 

The Republic last visited the Ministry of Health on June 26, 2024. A senior official at the Ministry said they were still unaware of  the state of the container, about 10 months after it was auctioned. But Saine said the Ministry was aware of their donations to CMS. 

“We are partners with the Ministry of Health… Anything we are doing, they will know,” said Saine. Interestingly , one of the Ministry’s staff who was instructed to dig into the  fate of the container was a staff of CMS.  A staff at the CMS who does not want to be named told The Republic they were unaware of any item being donated to them by the FaBB Foundation from August 2023. 

The Republic made a request to  the Central Medical Store (CMS) on June 28 to verify if FaBB has donated any medical items there from August 2023. “We have received several donations from FaBB over the years but I am not sure when was the last time. I have been very busy. Why don’t you go back to the organisation to ask when they made the donation,” said Fatou L. Samateh, the acting director of National Pharmaceutical Services, in what was our third phone call after visiting her at her office on July 1. Fatou, a pharmacist by training, is a sister of the Minister of Health Dr Ahmed Lamin Samateh. 

Since its inception, the First Lady’s foundation has  been active in donating medical items to health facilities and digging boreholes for local communities across the country. Both the donors and  donation events are adequately published on the charity’s official Facebook page. The Republic reviewed the charity’s Facebook page and  its website but there is no trace of a donation to CMS from August 2023 to date. 

There is no donation also matching $463,830, the value of Foundation 221’s medical items, imported into the country. There is also no record of a generous donor donating a container valued at $463,830 to the charity. The last donation made to CMS, according to records on their Facebook page, was $500, 000 worth of medical items in 2021. 

Foundation 221’s operations manager, Buba Sanyang, said they heard from a third party in March 2024 that the container was auctioned by the Custom Department and the “details of the buyer are confidential”. 

There was a change of permanent secretaries at the Ministry of Health which further complicated the situation. In March 2024— about 7 months after the container was auctioned, the Ministry wrote to GRA requesting information on the state of the container. But as of June 26, 2024, the Ministry has not received a reply. In fact, both the Ministry and Foundation 221 learned of  the auctioning and the name of the buyer from The Republic. 

“We were all surprised (by Custom’s decision to auction the container). It is unheard of, especially for a medical supply,”  said a senior official at the Ministry of Health who does not want to be named. 

“Usually, they will call and donate it to us instead of auctioning it. This has never happened.”  

Section 58(C) of the Customs and Excise Act 2010, exempted goods imported by aid agencies and government from being auctioned “except with prior written approval of the Commissioner General”.

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