There have been parties on the streets of Gambia ever since Adama Barrow returned to the country one week ago. Videos show thousands of people, including women and children, lining the streets of the capital, Banjul, to sing the national anthem and welcome home the new president. Troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are still out in force, but for many the atmosphere is one of celebration. Banjul residents told local news media “everybody is happy… we have to thank ECOWAS”. Another savoured their newfound liberty: “freedom is so sweet”.
Yahya Jammeh, Mr. Barrow’s predecessor, once promised to rule for a billion years. In the end he managed just 22, but they were sufficiently brutal to make many Gambians rejoice at his peaceful downfall. After losing the election in December – one he forgot to rig, or so the joke goes – Mr. Jammeh agreed to stand down but quickly changed his mind. The ensuing crisis brought Gambia – a tiny country in West Africa known more for its winter sun and sex tourism than its political scene – to the world’s attention. Eventually, on January 21, he fled the country under pressure from regional powers.
As Mr. Barrow made his triumphant return, spirits were so high that people even managed to joke that it was Mr. Jammeh landing at the airport. One young man said he hoped “this government will ensure that democracy, good governance and the rule of law is in place”.
Marloes Janson, a West Africa expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told TWW there has been growing frustration in Gambia among the youthful population and that many have risked migrating to Europe. The teenage goalkeeper of Gambia’s national women’s football team died attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing. Dr. Janson believes that young Gambians played an crucial role in “mobilising support” for regime change. In a country where the average age is 20, many people have known only one leader. Now they can hope for a brighter future.
The strange geography of the Gambia is a result of the first Treaty of Versailles in 1783 which gave Britain possession of land north and south of the Gambia river. The rest was French territory. As many as three million slaves were taken from this region.
The former leader, now living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994. US support was rumoured, not least because Mr. Jammeh had spent four months training at Fort McClellan, Alabama. At the time he was a fresh-faced, 29-year-old officer.
In interviews shortly after seizing power, Mr. Jammeh attacked the Gambian political class, accusing them of corruption. He vowed to make a “clean sweep” and said that under his reign “all will be equal… that is democracy”. He promised transparent government and structures to eradicate graft. In sum, he pledged that things would be different, but over the years they remained the same, and in some respects got noticeably worse. Mr. Jammeh has allegedly amassed $1.8 billion, accrued mansions around the globe and acquired a fleet of luxury cars, including two Rolls Royces which he took with him to Equatorial Guinea.
Despite some progressive moves – including a ban on female genital mutilation and making child marriage illegal – Mr. Jammeh will be remembered as a corrupt dictator. The erratic leader claimed he could cure HIV with herbal remedies, called homosexuals “vermin” and described non-religious people as “lower than pigs”. His former press secretary, Fatou Camara, thought he had a personality disorder.
As his reign wore on, Mr. Jammeh removed Gambia from the British Commonwealth and declared the country an Islamic Republic, dropping his army fatigues for billowing white robes (which nonetheless were rumoured to hide a bulletproof vest, the legacy of several coup attempts). This eastern pivot may have had something to do with the fact that Western countries began to withhold aid over his human rights abuses. In 2014, two UN special rapporteurs reported the “consistent practice” of torture in the country and wrote that avoiding arrest had become “a necessary preoccupation” for ordinary Gambians. Sanna Camara, a journalist, had to flee the country after exposing human trafficking.
A victory for African diplomacy
Yahya Jammeh could not have been toppled without the intervention of the ECOWAS. After his volte-face, leaders from Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone went to Banjul to convince the stubborn leader to step down. This mission was unsuccessful, but the coalition of West African leaders was not deterred.
“Jammeh provided his neighbours with plenty of reasons to hasten his departure,” Nick Branson, senior researcher at the Africa Research Institute, told TWW. Unrest in Gambia posed a real threat to security in Senegal, and his alleged sponsorship of rebels in the breakaway region of Casamance had long riled neighbouring countries. Indeed David Perfect, a Gambia expert at Chester University, goes so far as to suggest “Jammeh had become an embarrassment to many African leaders”. While they were tackling Islamic fundamentalism, he was courting Saudi Arabia and advocating strict religious rule.
At home, Mr. Jammeh’s allies realised the ship was sinking. Members of his cabinet fled to Senegal and Isatou Saidy, vice president for 20 years, also resigned. With Senegalese troops stationed on the border and the Nigerian air force patrolling the skies above Banjul, the president’s arm was eventually twisted.
Adama Barrow has been back in Gambia for just a week, but he has already made his mark, appointing a number of ex-political prisoners to his cabinet including Ousainou Darboe, leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP), and women’s rights activist Isatou Touray. He promised to liberate the media, revamp the intelligence agency, return the country to the International Criminal Court and make ministers declare assets before assuming office. His first act was to remove ‘Islamic Republic’ from the country’s name.
These promises are well-intentioned. However, the honeymoon period could be short-lived if economic conditions do not improve. Youth unemployment is at 38% and young people are hoping their new president, with his background in business, will create more opportunities. By population, Gambia had the highest percentage of migrants registered in Greece last year.
The political obstacles are just as tough. Mr. Barrow heads a coalition of seven different parties with varying ideologies, and Dr. Perfect believes the National Assembly elections in April “will be very significant”. Will the coalition remain united, and can it win an overall majority? Tensions are already rising: this week young protesters called for all lawmakers to resign because they supported Mr. Jammeh’s state of emergency.
Demise of the despot?
Nonetheless, Abdou Fall, a sociologist at Dakar University, sees Adama Barrow’s appointment as a victory for the region as a whole. “Gambian and Senegalese peoples have much in common,” he told TWW. “Some of us dream of building a Senegambia with a common will”. The Senegalese government hopes to build bridges – metaphorical and real – between the two countries to ease travel and commerce, which is still hampered by colonial border-drawing.
Is Gambia’s peaceful revolution, under pressure from regional powers, a template that could be applied elsewhere? Here was an African solution to an African problem, putting the philosophy of the African Union – whose 26th summit ended this week – into action. ECOWAS’ intervention “sends a strong message to remaining dictators in the region that election results favouring opposition parties will be enforced,” said Abdoulaye Saine, a Gambian political scientist at Miami University.
There is great optimism that Gambia marks the end of rigged and stolen elections on the continent. However, the engagement of ECOWAS and similar regional economic communities is clearly dependent on political will. In 2017 Africa will host five more elections. After results in Liberia, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Kenya we should see at least three new presidents on the continent. Would neighbouring countries intervene if heads of state ignore the results? It seems unlikely.
Nonetheless, the intervention in Gambia sends hope to the people of the region and in Africa in general. As Professor Saine states, it “is likely to embolden all citizens in West Africa to express and exercise their democratic rights – without fear”.