The ugly and the beautiful of The Gambia.
August 24th, 2018.
My name is Henry Franken. I am 51 years old and was born in The Netherlands. I have been coming to The Gambia for close to 15 years now. What started off as a one-time holiday for two weeks to The Gambia turned out to become my second home in life. I have visited many beautiful parts of the world in my blessed life. Still the people of Gambia remain in my memory and my heart. I have met many nice brothers and sisters over the years that I spent in The Gambia. The Gambia is truly the Smiling Coast of Africa.
On my first journey inside The Gambia I met with a nice man, Baboucarr, who was stand-in taxi driver at that time. He showed me many beautiful and historic places of The Gambia. While he remained a bit reluctant to give me details on his family life and my wish to pay them a visit, I persisted as I really would like to know them as well. At that time he was living with his wife and small daughter under very poor conditions. I decided to help them out and became part of their family as they became part of my family. Over the 15 years that have passed Baboucarr proofed to be a true and loyal friend. I have deep respect for his commitment to make the best out of his family life. Through hard work, he now owns his own compound, and his family grew happily to three healthy kids, who now go to an accredited school.
In The Netherlands, I was lucky to be educated well with an MSc and PhD degree. After a research career, I started an IT business with two colleagues. The business did well. When I became 50 years old I sold my share in the business, because I wanted to do something different with the rest of my life.
One of these goals is to start business in The Gambia and employ and help local people. In these goals, my daughter decided to join me. She finished her college in The Netherlands and will move to The Gambia. We started a Limited Company for the commercial businesses in tourism and transport that we intend to start and we also set up a Foundation for up-country charity. To start of the first business we bought a compound on which we are currently building a restaurant. With part of the profit of the commercial businesses we intend to help people up country as they live in difficult circumstances.
In the beginning of 2018, I met with Mass Suso. Mass Suso presented himself as an educated person, with European experience and many relationships at higher levels in The Gambian government. Mass Suso introduced me to management team of The Gambian Tourism Board (GTB), the Minister of Agriculture, The ministries of Health and Education, The Department of (up country) community development, The MD of The National Food Security Processing and Marketing Corporation (NFSPMC; formerly Gambia Groundnut Corporation), The Gambian Port, etc. Based on these pleasant meetings, I decided to hire Mass Suso the guide and consult for me. As I come to the Gambia many times per year, but do not stay permanently, we set up a WhatsApp communication medium and email to work together.
My main goal with the GTB process is to build an ApartHotel in the SeneGambia area. Mass Suso arranged the working contacts with the GTB-MD. Mass Suso contacted GTB to arrange for a Tourist Development Area (TDA) application to obtain a specific plot of land closer to the beach. We visited this plot many times. Mass Suso helped me write a business plan based on my overall business intentions. Mass Suso provided me with receipts for the different amounts of money needed to start applications, obtain the several licenses, etc. The ApartHotel intends to lodge visitors in two or three room furnished apartments with several services (like cleaning, washing, internet, catering, etc). The main goal is to host tourists and business people who want to comfortably and safely stay in The Gambia for a longer period of time. As the local business around the chosen plot already supplies restaurants, gym facilities, entertainment and beach, etc. the specific ApartHotel lodging idea fits well. Mass Suso and I had several meetings with the GTB. Mass asked for substantial amounts of money to pay for TDA land allocation fees.
Mass Suso also started an application at The Gambian Import and Export Promotion Agency (GIEPA), to enable tax exemptions, also for the import of all goods needed for the businesses. Also for this, Mass Suso asked for substantial amounts of money needed to start the process. As I built a trust relationship with Mass Suso, I let Mass Suso handle things and asked for the receipts.
In the time between beginning of 2018 and now, I travelled up country many times to speak to Alekalos of the chosen village area for charity: Kaur. On one of these occasions, I asked Mass Suso to come along, as I had specific development ideas with the groundnut factory. This factory had been out of business for a long time due to lack of maintenance and investment. Mass Suso contacted the Minister of Agriculture and MD of NFSPMC to help us get in contact with the right people at the plant. Mass Suso was lodged in Kaur at a very kind family, whom I had come to know during my previous visits. I also introduced Mass Suso to the local Alekalo. After coming back from this visit I handed over a sum of money for Mass Suso to develop this plan together with the Minister of Agriculture and NFSPMC, while I was in The Netherlands. I asked Mass to hold onto this until I asked him to start as I did not want to start this before the GTB application was finished. The plan has not started yet.
At a later point in time during the collaboration process with Mass Suso, also after having spent large sums of money already, things seemed to go a bit different from my perspective. For the application to be judged, Mass Suso asked for token money to ‘help’ the different people at GTB and the land allocation authority decide. He said this was a normal gesture. As I am new to Gambian business, and had experienced many police men asking for green tea or even more to let us pass on the roads, I reluctantly went along with this. My doubts began to rise when decisions were not communicated formally. I pressed Mass Suso to contact both GTB and GIEPA to come with results as the process was taking many months already. Only verbally, Mass Suso communicated the progress and explained the delays. I asked for formal writings and was given a sample letter that I would obtain from GTB when the application was granted. The letter contained a surprise in that a major down payment was requested under specific timing conditions (18 months) within which the complete project needed to be finished. As I have seen many building projects in The Gambia, and have also run a couple of those myself, I knew these conditions to be totally impossible to meet on an undeveloped plot. I reported this back immediately and also stressed that down payments needed to be proportional to what can be reasonably built in the set conditions of 18 months.
Time kept moving along without progress nor written replies from either GTB or GIEPA. To make matters even more difficult, Mass Suso said he would spend July and August in Europe with his family there. In May, when I was in The Netherlands, Mass Suso reported a major tragedy in his family, stating that his mother, with whom he lived on a compound in Serrekunda area, had suffered a heart attack. She would need to go for surgery in Dakar. Two days later, Mass Suso communicated that his mother had passed away.To my dismay, Mass Suso asked for a large amount of money. Mass Suso said: ‘ I want to bring the dead body home and pay for the hospital bill. I desperately ask you for 52.000 Dalasis’. I refused to this request, given the fact that Mass Suso had told me that several of his brothers are working and living in Europe and have a good life there. Moreover, I had paid Mass Suso large sums of money already. In my perspective, such family matters should be dealt with within the family.
The communication over the WhatsApp group by Mass Suso started to become less and less, despite our pressing questions to react as we were already planning the first export to The Gambia. In July I travelled back to The Gambia to proceed the businesses as intended. I tried to contact Mass Suso, but his phone was not active. He replied by WhatsApp that he was in Germany now and would be back in September. As I know the whereabouts of both the GTB and GEIPA offices, my daughter and I went for a visit to obtain an update on both projects. At GTB, I was unable to speak with the MD. Apparently the man now was very busy despite several request for a meeting. I was deferred to the GTB office in Brufut. I went there to copy the complete file. After studying the files, I observed that some of these documents and receipts were new to me. Another surprise was a the presence of a second (newer) business plan for a four star hotel. I had never seen this plan, which talked about luxury rooms, restaurants, gym, swimming pool, conference center, mini market, etc. I had been very explicit in all our meetings with GTB and Mass Suso that I wanted to develop an ApartHotel and leave other services to local businesses.
To make matters even more confusing, I was called by The GTB that a signed letter would be there for me in a couple of days. We picked up this letter, which confirmed that the construction of an ApartHotel was reviewed and considered to fall within the concept of the Tourism Master Plan for hotel development in the West Coast TDA. It did not mention the specific plot in SeneGambia. It did not mention any criteria to be met. The letter simply asked for a non-refundable development levy of 90.000 euros to be deposited within 14 days as a strong indication of my commitments and ability to immediately start and complete the project ‘just in time’. After this deposit the Board of GTB would finalize the appraisal of the project. Failure to pay in time may result that the ‘offer is given the a next qualified applicant’. I was left in total confusion: what offer could this be?
We also decided to pay the GEIPA a visit. We ware told that there was no application filed in our name at GEIPA. The officers present at the GEIPA confirmed that Mass Suso had contacted them for several questions, but never submitted an application. Moreover, the officers of the GEIPA made very clear that no application fee payments are requested for the GEIPA application until after a final decision is reached by GIEPA. To verify the whereabouts of Mass Suso I asked the local officer to give Mass Suso a call with his local number. To our surprise Mass Suso picked up his local phone. Mass Suso said he was travelling up country and almost immediately asked whether the call was about my GEIPA application. I wondered: how could Mass Suso know and why did Mass Suso ask about this.
The officials of GEIPA advised me to start a new application and use the knowledge and obtained permits already in place. Moreover, GEIPA has offered to help us in the current process with GTB. Given my leave to Europe within the next week, this will have to wait until my next visit.
To really verify and be sure about our serious allegations, we decided to pay a visit the family compound of Mass Suso. To our utmost surprise, we met with the mother of Mass Suso! And just before entering the compound we saw Mass Suso run away. We contacted and invited Mass Suso to talk. As it was Tabaski period, this time is perfect. Tabaski is the moment for clarification of wrong deeds and for reconciliation. Mass Suso suggested a time to meet, but again did not show up.
Perhaps you can call me dumb, or even stupid to trust people like Mass Suso. The proper introduction to his impressive network of higher placed officials and the show of partial progress in the projects made me trust Mass Suso. Mass Suso had also been working for the German Charity organization (Project Aid The Gambia) with positive internet referrals. Moreover, given the frequent talks of Mass Suso about his Muslim faith and his expressed commitment to help the poor people in The Gambia strengthened my trust. It is my business attitude to work on the basis of trust relationships, as one alone cannot do all the work.
You may be wondering what my intentions are to share this story with you and what this experience is doing to me. First of all, I have not lost faith nor commitment to help develop business together with the resourceful people of The Gambia. I will also continue to help the poor people in The Gambia. These goals come from the heart, which can not be stolen. Trust in certain people with fake reputations, like in this case Mass Suso, can vanish. My money can be stolen or spent unwisely.
This all has been a very frustrating learning lesson. I feel strongly that people like Mass Suso must be put out of business as soon as possible to prevent further damage to other investors in The Gambia and ultimately to the reputation of The Gambia. Mass Suso should be taken to court so that his total collaboration process can be made transparent and so be officially judged on the basis of the actions.
Best regards, Henry Franken
Editors note: Mass Suso could not be reached for his own side of the story. He is more than welcome to state his own side of the story. Thanks for your attention.