The other inauguration: a new, inclusive Gambia?

The 20th January 2017 will be remembered as the day on which Donald Trump assumed the office of the President of The United States. But on the West African coast, some equally momentous and unlikely political events have been unfolding, which should not go unrecognised. Gambians will remember the 20th January as the day when their dictator of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, finally agreed to a deal by which he would 'relinquish the mantle of leadership' and fly, with his family, to exile in Equatorial Guinea. It is of no coincidence that Equatorial Guinea is not a state party to The International Criminal Court (ICC).

Much like his American counterpart, The Gambia’s new president Adama Barrow would not have been considered a contender for the presidency of his country 18 months ago. What’s more, his background is not in politics but in business, real estate development, no less.  But this is probably where the comparisons between these two men end.

The UK media has taken an interest in Barrow’s back story. Particularly, that he once worked as a security guard at a London branch of Argos, whilst he was studying in the UK. These headlines tell us more about our own lack of understanding of immigration than they do about The Gambia. Barrow’s ascension to the presidency of his country is not remarkable because he worked at Argos. His achievement is remarkable for all of the other obstacles that his campaign overcame, and for the much needed changes that he now has the opportunity to bring about.

Yayha Jammeh governed The Gambia through an eccentric mix of anti-colonial rhetoric and ruthless authoritarianism, allowing no challenge to his rule. He moulded and eroded the constitution to his advantage and used military and security services, packed with members of his own Jola ethnic group, to defend his status. His security and intelligence services have been able to operate with impunity – they are accused of making political opponents ‘disappear’ and routinely using torture. Citizens have enjoyed no freedom of expression, and many opposition activists have been forced in exile.

In addition to the climate of repression, under Jammeh the Gambian economy has been mismanaged. It affords few opportunities to young people, who comprise the majority of the population. Unemployment has been chronically high. Under his rule GDP per capita in the Gambia has fallen and is the lowest in West Africa, in neighbouring Senegal it is growing steadily. Social, health and education policies under Jammeh have represented style over substance. He promised to end child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). Healthcare and primary education is ‘free’, but the healthcare and education infrastructure remains extremely weak and inadequate. Shortages of basic drugs in health centres and of books in schools, have not stopped Jammeh from using public money for what many see as nothing more than vanity projects, for example the construction of grand, elaborate mosques.

Driven by a lack of economic opportunities at home and unwilling to tolerate an increasingly autocratic government many young Gambians have chosen what is locally known as ‘the back way’. They embark on long and treacherous journeys across the Sahara to the people-smuggling hub of the Libyan coastline. Here money can be exchanged for a chance to risk one’s life in an attempt to get to Europe. The number of Gambians trying to cross the Mediterranean is staggering, given the small population. In The Gambia, everybody knows someone who has gone ‘the back way’. With Barrow now in The State House, many members of the extensive Gambian diaspora will consider returning.

Jammeh’s behaviour on the world stage has also been in opposition to his people’s interests. His rhetoric was fiercely anti-Western and isolationist, creating further barriers to economic development by scaring off investors and development aid donors. The European Union cut hundreds of millions of euros of support after Jammeh’s introduction of overtly homophobic laws. He also withdrew the Gambia from The Commonwealth and International Criminal Court and perplexed many with a whimsical declaration of an ‘Islamic Republic’ in 2015. Barrow has made pledges to re-establish positive relations with the outside world.

Former President Yayha Jammeh

Jammeh periodically held elections, and predictably he won them, with scarcely believable percentages of the vote. Most would have predicted a similar result from 2016’s presidential race. Opposition leaders were jailed, only a two-week period allowed for ‘campaigning’, posters of a smiling Jammeh stuck in every available space, soldiers loitered around polling stations, an internet blackout was imposed and international election observers banned from entering the country. All the conditions for another crushing victory for Jammeh seemed to be in place, not least because he had infamously promised that he would rule the Gambia for ‘a billion years if God willed it’.

But not for the first time in 2016, the predictions of commentators and experts were wrong. A brave Electoral Commission announced that the opposition had won, with Barrow taking 43.3% of the vote to Jammeh’s 39.6%. United around a single candidate, as they never had been before, the multi-party opposition coalition persuaded enough people to end their fear and vote against the only leader that many of them had ever known. What happened next further defied belief. Jammeh went live on Gambian state television and phoned Adama Barrow to concede defeat. The news sparked jubilant scenes and international commentators hailed the Gambian transfer of power as an example for the whole of Africa.

Just a week later, possibly spooked by rumours that the incoming government would seek to prosecute him for crimes committed in office, Jammeh changed his mind. He announced his rejection of the election result over concerns of foreign interference and irregularities in the voting process. He sought to resolve the ensuing constitutional crisis in his favour by having his complaints heard by The Supreme Court. But Jammeh’s decision to dismiss the Supreme Court judges around a year ago meant the institution was effectively dissolved and reconvening it at short notice to hear his fabricated case proved impossible, both with Gambian and foreign judges.

With Jammeh refusing to step aside until his complaint could be heard, ECOWAS, the regional organisation of West African states, sent several political delegations to The Gambia. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria led the diplomatic efforts and a threat of military action to remove him if necessary was also maintained. On 17th January, after spending many days promising to resolve the impasse through ‘The Constitution of The Gambia’, Jammeh resorted to a traditional dictator’s tool, the ‘state of emergency’ suspending any pretension of upholding the rule of law and granting himself another 90 days in office.

Against this background Barrow was inaugurated on the scheduled handover date, but not in the National Stadium as had been planned. His inauguration was a low key affair in comparison to that of Trump - he took his oath in the embassy in Senegal, whilst West African troops moved in to The Gambia to force Yayha Jammeh to leave The State House. Much like Trump, he is assuming high office at an uncertain time and it is hard to predict the trajectory of his presidency. Trump’s campaign for the White House was characterised by hateful rhetoric that made scapegoats of minorities and showed intolerance of difference. In contrast, Adam Barrow has consistently made clear that he is intent on playing a unifying role, first amongst the fractured opposition and then in the country at large. While Trump thrives on attention derived from courting controversy, the understated Barrow deploys cautious rhetoric.

Donald Trump repeatedly promised to put his electoral opponent Hilary Clinton in jail and corralled his assembled audiences to chant ‘lock her up’. Adama Barrow has sought to distance himself from opposition calls for the prosecution of his opponent Jammeh and suppress any desire for retribution in favour of reconciliation. During his rule, as Trump did during his campaign, Jammeh often attempted to sow division along ethnic lines. The Gambia is a country of considerable ethno-linguistic diversity, but tribal division has not been a feature of its modern history. Barrow, who is of mixed Fula, Mandinka and Sarahule background with sisters who have Jola husbands, embodies the multi-ethnic Gambian identity and unity that he also espouses. He has promised an inclusive Gambia where tribalism will have no place.

His conciliatory approach to the crisis seems to have proven successful. With international institutions and West African leaders already united in their determination that Jammeh must accept the will of the people and leave office, attention turned to elements of Gambian society who might remain loyal to the ex-President and prevent a peaceful transition of power from occurring. But fears of a showdown or a descent into civil conflict following January 19th were quickly allayed by Jammeh’s ministers resigning and military leaders announcing that they had no interest in fighting to defend him. The Chief of Defence Staff, Ousman Badjie was filmed celebrating in the streets with some supporters of Barrow on Thursday night, and on Friday declared that his men would welcome their ‘brothers’ from ECOWAS ‘with a cup of tea’ if they arrived in Banjul to forcibly remove Jammeh. No stranger to irony, Jammeh confounded his own isolation by ‘sacking’ his remaining ministers and declaring that he would govern alone.

Late on 20th January, after hours of talks with Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Guinea’s Alpha Condé, Jammeh appeared on Gambian television to announce that he would be leaving office and leaving the country. Some Gambians will express their disillusionment with the mediating ECOWAS leaders for letting their ex-president, who they see as a criminal, off the hook. In the end he was allowed to delude himself that he was quitting on his own terms. He boarded his plane with his amassed, and possibly recently expanded, personal fortune intact – opposition figures say that 500 million dalasi ($11.4 million) has been withdrawn from the state coffers in the past two weeks. Jammeh is accused of crimes such as torture and extrajudicial political killings that under international law cannot be amnestied, and so the terms of his political deal to leave do not give him indefinite legal protection. He could one day be held accountable, but in Equatorial Guinea, which has been led for four decades by the same man and not in the ICC, he will at least be safe from extradition, for now.

The overwhelming feeling amongst the Gambian people though will be one of relief. As Jammeh refused to cede power and ECOWAS promised intervention it was fear more than anger that intensified. That the country had come to an eerie standstill rather than descending into chaos testifies to this.  According to UNHCR, around 45,000 have fled over the border into Senegal, almost all of them women and children. Now they can return to a new Gambia and continue with their lives.  

Yahya Jammeh and Adama Barrow were both born in 1965, the year of Gambian Independence from Britain, since then their country has never achieved a democratic transition of power. Now, albeit with robust assistance from its West African friends, it has. The new government has much work to do in rebuilding the Gambian economy and a delicate line to tread between pursuing justice and preserving unity. Barrow hopes to lead a three-year transitional administration to build a Third Republic of The Gambia whose flag will ‘fly high among those of the most democratic nations of the world’. We wish him well.

Tom Barton - Project Development Officer