Questions have emerged over the ownership of a Chinese-funded bridge in The Gambia after authorities suddenly imposed a toll fee on users, one year after its inauguration.
The bridge, which was inaugurated in October last year, was mostly funded with Chinese money. But it was presented at the time as a grant from China to the people of the West African nation.
The bridge, named Samba Juma Bridge, connects the north and southern ends the Upper River Region of The Gambia, and it was built as part of a massive road construction initiative designed to provide vital access in connecting communities, goods and services in what is the farthest region of the country. The package included a major highway, several link roads and other bridges, costing a total of $100 million. Construction work started in 2018.
During the inauguration of the projects, President Adama Barrow said the Chinese contribution of $81 million was a donation by People’s Republic of China.
China-Gambia relations date back to the 1960s. But formal relations began with The Gambia’s official recognition of mainland China in 1974, which ended in 1995 when the West African nation under former President Yahya Jammeh switched to Taiwan.
The Gambia was one of the few African countries, along with Burkina Faso, Swaziland and São Tomé and Príncipe, that at the time recognised Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. The two Asian neighbours have for years tried to poach each other’s allies, often using generous aid packages as enticement.
In 2013, Jammeh suddenly severed ties with Taiwan again, in favour of China. After assuming office in 2017, the Barrow administration cemented the relationship and the roads and bridges projects were seen as rewards for Gambia’s loyalty to China.
According to The Gambia government, trade volumes between the two countries significantly rose to $570 million by 2020, in less than five years since the renewal of diplomatic ties.
The roads and bridges projects were supposed to end decades of transportation hurdles for the people and businesses in the region. But the multimillion-dalasi Samba Juma Bridge has been rendered virtually useless since the officials began charging for its use about a week ago.
Not only are drivers lamenting the exorbitant fees charged, but questions are also being asked as it why the toll fees were only introduced recently.
Resorted to canoes
Last week, reports indicated that some people had resorted to using canoes to cross the river, bypassing the bridge. Commuters say they use the canoes because they cannot walk the 250-meter-long distance of the bridge.
Drivers of commercial vans are required to pay D150 (over US$2), while taxis are paying D50 (about US$1) for a one-way trip, according to reports. The drivers say they are required to pay regardless of whether a vehicle has passengers or not.
Basse, the largest town in the area, is the administrative capital of the region and home to healthcare, high schools, markets, and other important offices.
Minister of Transport Ebrima Sillah said the agreement between China and the Gambian government was that the bridge would be operated by the Chinese for a period of two years, ending December 2023, during what he called the “default liability period”.
“After those two years, the Chinese government will hand over the bridge maintenance to the government of the Gambia,” Mr Sillah was quoted telling community leaders following complaints over the toll charges.