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The plane had been waiting on the tarmac at Banjul Airport for hours, and it was late evening before President Yahya Jammeh finally arrived. Wearing his signature flowing white robes, and clutching a Qur’an, he turned at the top of the aircraft stairs, grinned broadly, and waved one last time at the country he had ruled for 22 years.
And then he was gone. Somehow, against all odds, Gambians had got rid of their dictator.
Cue wild parties and celebrations all over the country, and joyful headlines across the world — after Donald Trump’s inauguration the day before, this unexpectedly peaceful transition was a welcome glimmer of good news.
But while Jammeh jetted off into comfortable exile in Equatorial Guinea, where he has reportedly taken up farming, his legacy looms large over The Gambia and its new, democratically elected president, Adama Barrow.
It is Barrow’s job to fix what Jammeh broke. Where to even start? The country was near-bankrupt. The security services were dangerously divided. The justice system was a joke and the prisons full of political prisoners.
Jammeh might have departed, but his toxic tendrils extended into every area of the dysfunctional government he had created.
“It’s a serious challenge, a big challenge,” says Ismaila Ceesay, a political science lecturer at the University of Gambia. “Security, health, education social welfare, you name it. Every sector has a problem. All the institutions have been failing under Jammeh. The challenge is to fix those institutions, and put the right people in the jobs.”
That’s exactly what Barrow has pledged to do. In a stirring, cathartic Independence Day speech in February, delivered to an adoring crowd in the Independence Stadium in Bakau, Barrow addressed his people for the first time (his inauguration speech, remember, was delivered in Senegal, because Jammeh had yet to concede). He promised them the world. Among his commitments were free education, an upgraded health service, food security, civil service reform, a truly independent judiciary and affordable electricity for all.
The new president warned that it was not going to be easy.
“We are now confronted with many challenges. We have inherited an economy that has declined because of political uncertainty. During the political impasse, businesses were shut down, offices and schools were closed. Foreign missions scaled down their staff. Fifty thousand left the country and over 126 000 became internally displaced. People restricted their movements and the country became ungovernable. The country would have remained in such a situation if the new government did not succeed in finding a solution to the impasse,” he says.
Given the state of the country, Barrow’s immediate aims were modest. Priority number one: to release political prisoners, many of whom were held in Banjul’s infamous Mile Two prison. Jammeh would frequently lock up opponents and critics, some of whom were never heard from again. At a stroke of his pen, Barrow ended this practice and 171 inmates walked free. As a symbol of change, it was potent.
Another priority was to take control of the various branches of the country’s security service. Barrow wasted little time in replacing the head of the army, along with many senior officers, as well as Jammeh’s much-feared intelligence chief.
But not everything could be accomplished so efficiently. Fast forward a few months, and Barrow’s administration is having to respond to criticism that it is not moving quickly enough to undo the worst excesses of Jammeh’s regime, and build a better nation.
Ceesay says: “They have failed to do what they are supposed to do, which is to line up clear policy. They have not been very transparent … recently, questions are being asked if they have what it takes to really solve our problems. People will start losing confidence in the administration.”
Ceesay accuses the new administration of pandering to public opinion through its selective targeting of Jammeh’s assets and associates, but failing to present clear plans to address crucial development issues such as chronic electricity shortages and high unemployment rates.
“We need rupture. We don’t want them to be doing the same thing that Jammeh was doing,” says Ceesay. “What we have here is just a change of government and ministers, but the structures and institutions that created Jammeh the monster are still in place, and if we’re not careful we are heading towards another dictatorship.”
Jeggan Grey-Johnson, a Gambian political analyst, shares these concerns. “They have been very slow off the mark. The evidence shows they haven’t done much.”
He blames the new president’s inexperience. “Barrow was an accidental candidate, therefore he became an accidental president. This is his first time ever involved in politics. The only reason why he rose to prominence [was] all 32 politicians ahead of him in the party hierarchy were arrested, and he was the 33rd in line.”
Barrow’s new government disagrees with this assessment — and they might have a point. Countries are like cruise ships: even with the best will in the world, and regardless of the captain’s identity, they don’t turn on a dime.
“Rome was not built in a day,” insists Vice-President Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, speaking to local media. “This government is not asking for people to be complacent but we need to manage the expectations. There is a need for patience because we are working on reversing a trend that went on for 22 years.”
Barrow and Jallow-Tambajang can still point to an impressive laundry list of accomplishments:
- Reform of the security sector and the judiciary has begun;
- Key Jammeh allies and perpetrators of human rights abuses have been arrested;
- As part of a sprawling corruption investigation, all of Jammeh’s known assets have been seized or frozen, including 86 bank accounts and 131 properties;
- Jammeh’s unilateral decision to withdraw The Gambia from the International Criminal Court has been rescinded;
- Most Jammeh-appointed diplomats have been recalled and replaced;
- A new national airline, Fly Mid Africa, has finally got off the ground;
- Donors, creditors and investors have been wooed back, including a €225-million aid package from the European Union;
- New private broadcast licenses have been issued and harsh media restrictions are in the process of being lifted; and
- Hundreds of exiled journalists have returned home.
Sanna Camara is one of the journalists who has returned. He spent several years in exile in Senegal after being repeatedly arrested and threatened by the previous regime. “My friend, I am elated. There’s no place like home. It’s unbelievable for my family that daddy is back,” he says.
From Camara’s perspective, the criticism of Barrow’s government is misplaced. “They’re doing very well. Tremendous efforts in the reconstruction process,” he says.
Camara argues that the arrests of Jammeh-era henchmen have been among the new government’s most significant successes.
“The quest to bring perpetrators of crimes against the population to justice, the rate at which they are going after those bearing direct responsibility for torture, executions, disappearances and unlawful imprisonment is commendable,” he says. “This helps victims and their families feel they’re being considered part of the national healing efforts.”
Whatever Barrow’s administration is doing, it seems to be popular: in April’s legislative election, Barrow’s United Democratic Party won a tidy majority in Parliament, taking 31 seats. Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, won just five.
Once again, the Gambian people have spoken. For now, they are still prepared to be patient.