Adama Barrow, newly elected president of Gambia, arrives for an Independence Day celebration in city of Bakau on Feb. 18, 2017. (REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon)
After emerging from a harsh dictatorship, now comes the gargantuan task of reconciling Gambia’s past horrors, and laying the groundwork for future prosperity.
I previously covered the encouraging though shocking developments over the last few months in the tiny West African nation of Gambia, population 1.7 million (63% of which is under age 34, which has been and will be a crucial factor in its development- more on this later). To recapitulate, after surviving through the tyrannical reign of Yahya Jammeh for 22 years, in December 2016 the country chose the opposition candidate Barrow in a peace, free and fair election. After vital intervention from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and regional leaders, Yammeh relented his power and left Gambia. In late January 2017 Barrow began his term as the country’s rightful leader.
Young people in Gambia voted in record numbers in the December election, and are thought to have been a significant factor in Barrow’s sweeping victory. Suleyman Ceesay, a Gambian journalist and youth activist, commented “This time we saw the importance of voting. Collectively we agreed we want to be free [of dictatorship] and that having a change of government is the only way to achieve this.”Protests under Jammeh often resulted in mass arrests or worse; one opposition leader died in government custody last April, and watchdog groups have long accused Jammeh of arresting, torturing, and killing political opponents.
But on January 31, 2017 Gambian youth took to the streets for a peaceful show of displeasure for the previous regime. About 1,500 demonstrators gathered at the parliament building demanding all members of the national assembly resign. The protesters hold the assembly accountable for stoking fear and confusion by declaring a state of emergency at the behest of Jammeh, causing many to flee. Youth involvement in elections and peaceful political organization will be important in holding the new government accountable.
On Febuary 20 Gambian national police arrested 51 people in Kafenda, a town that has been a known base of support for Jammeh. Those arrested were involved in a skirmish with Barrow supporters, indicating that tensions are still running high between followers of the old guard and new.
Around the same time, it also became more clear that Jammeh’s financial transgressions were far worse than originally thought. On February 23 officials in Barrow’s government announced that Jammeh looted a whopping $50 million from state funds (up from previous estimate of $11 million), including skimming money from pensions, port operations, and the state telecom company. His mismanagement also left the country with $1 billion in debt. Barrow’s ministers claimed no stone will be left unturned in getting the money back—even going after Jammeh in his current exile in Equatorial Guinea—if it is possible. On February 25 the World Bank pledged $60 million to the new government to help alleviate the financial crisis, and IMF and African Development Bank are expected to follow suit.
Barrow has taken action in support of his promise to sweep away remnants of Jammeh’s regime. On February 27 he dismissed the country’s chief military officer, other army leaders, and the director of the state prison system. The prison director and head of the national intelligence agency were also arrested on charges of murder and human rights abuses. Many citizens and human rights groups are demanding investigations, and justice for perpetrators, in more than 30 cases of political or military opponents who were arrested, killed, or went missing during Jammeh’s rule. Barrow has vowed to implement such investigations.
Finally, on March 10 the Gambian government said it would undertake even more inquiries into Jammeh’s finances. A Reuters investigation revealed that Jammeh stole more than $8 million from a national charity bank account over a 2 year period in 2012-2013.
Adama Barrow, who came to power in a legitimate election, leading a free and democratic Gambia is certainly a good thing. Yet the developments presented above show that its road will not be smooth, and much work still needs to be done. Barrow needs to both undo the harm (financial, political, psychological) left by Jammeh, but move the country forward through healing and growth. The support of organizations like ECOWAS and the World Bank will be essential in ensuring stability and getting the economy on its feet. Involving youth and different political groups in the new government will help ensure all feel their needs and wishes are represented.
This is the critical time where strength and support, both internal and external, will determine whether or not Gambia will emerge from the shadows of its past.