Bureaucracy

Before leaving The Gambia it was necessary for me to obtain a certificate of good character to cover the period I had been in residence and to show that I had not got into trouble during my stay. To do this I had to go to the police records office at Banjul with 2 passport photos, my Passport (and photocopy), and my Residence Permit (and photocopy) and pay a fee of D500 (about £8). I was told this would probably entail a lengthy wait as having inspected my documents and taken fingerprints, details would have to be checked against the criminal records register for the last year.

I anticipated there might be problems because I was unable to produce a Residence Permit. It was stolen with my wallet last November, and at the time the Immigration Service told me not to bother renewing it immediately as I would have to apply for a new one in January anyway, so I duly applied for and received a new Immigration Certificate and a replacement Aliens Identity Card, but left my Residence Permit until January. Then, only two days before I was due (along with the other volunteers) to be issued with the 2014 card, VSO informed us that GAMBIS, the office who issue the biometric cards were having technical problems and that no cards would now be issued until about April…..

I had arranged to go to Banjul with Helen, a fellow volunteer who arrived here at the same time as I did and was leaving at the same time, but en route I called to collect a photocopy of the 2013 GAMBIS card which was in my file at VSO office. Except it wasn’t. In theory the Country Office photocopy all our documents – ID cards, tax registration, bank details etc and keep them safe, but not for the first time I found that theory and practice were two different things, and no record of my card could be found.

Of course the first question asked when Helen and I arrived at the Police Records Office was “Have you got all your documents?”

I explained my circumstances and that I could produce various other forms of Gambian and UK identity but was politely told that without a GAMBIS card I could not be issued with police clearance as my Residence Permit number had to be recorded on the certificate. No negotiation, no suggestion that perhaps I could pay a fee to resolve this problem or use my Alien Card details instead, simply a point blank refusal. I had rather expected this might be the case, so although extremely annoyed at wasting my day, I was prepared for this possibility and thought it was not too important as I’m unlikely to be asked to produce it by any potential employer – except that I may need it along with my UK Criminal Records Bureau records check if I wish to volunteer in the future, so I fumed internally but went outside to wait as Helen’s application was processed.

Five minutes later she joined me – her application had also been refused as her Residence Permit expired in December (as they all do) and of course she too had been unable to renew it for 2014 due to the problems at GAMBIS. Now this was more critical for Helen as she is half my age, and will definitely need to be able to produce a clean and unbroken record when applying for jobs, so first of all she rang the VSO office who said they would see if anything could be done. As we waited for a reply she rang a co-worker from her placement who had offered on several occasions to sort out problems saying that he had good connections, and who had been quite disappointed that she had never taken up his offer. He advised us to go to Police Headquarters and ask to see Ousman Gibba, Commissioner of Operations for the Gambia Police Force and ask for his assistance. Having successfully passed through security where they took away our mobile phones and issued us with Visitor badges we found our way to the Commissioner’s Office and knocked on the door. It was opened by a security guard who came outside shutting the door behind him to ask our business and then went back in shutting the door again. A minute or two later he reappeared and ushered us inside to sit on a large leather sofa while we waited for the Commissioner to finish speaking to a previous visitor.

Ousman Gibba was a large man sitting behind a large desk in a very important looking uniform and obviously quite comfortable with his position of authority. A man used to command, and to getting things done. We introduced ourselves with some trepidation and mentioned the name of the man who had sent us, to which we received a fairly neutral “Ah yes, I know him” response, which was a trifle disconcerting. We then explained the nature of our problem and he immediately lifted a telephone and made a brief call summoning someone from Records to his office. A conversation followed mostly in Mandinka during which it seemed the Commissioner was asking what our Residency Permits had to do with a criminal records check, and giving instructions to his subordinate, then dismissing us with the comment “I think someone is trying to make things unnecessarily difficult!”

We collected our mobile phones from security and were escorted back to the records office we had left 15 minutes beforehand where all of a sudden anything seemed possible. Our application forms were rapidly completed and we were then sent round the corner with them to the Gambia Revenue Authority offices to pay our D500 and obtain a receipt. On our return with proof of payment our fingerprints were taken, and carefully inspected through a magnifying glass while the inspector jotted down a series of numbers against them on the record sheet, and shortly afterwards Helen’s certificate appeared. Mine followed a couple of minutes later, and by three o’clock we were leaving Banjul. Thank you Commissioner.

Obviously it’s not WHAT you know……

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