By Emma Emeozor
Adama Barrow returned to a rousing welcome Thursday after his hegira to Senegal, where he was sworn in as President of The Gambia. His peaceful entry into the capital city, Banjul, sealed the era of former dictator, Yahya Jammeh and marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the country.
But for the carrot-and-stick diplomacy championed by the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), backed by the African Union (AU), the United Nations (UN) and the West, the story of the Gambia would have been a disastrous one. Certainly, given the mood of the times, the country of 1.89 million people would have been enmeshed in a civil war.
For once, ECOWAS stood up in defense of democratic values. The significance of ECOWAS’ success in Gambia is that with, less emphasis on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, the countries can unite on the platform to promote democracy and civil rights across the region.
ECOWAS must take advantage of the Gambia precedent and overhaul its machinery for the enforcement of electoral reforms and good governance in the bloc.
It is hoped that the events in the Gambia would send a stern warning to other sit-tight leaders in the region that a day would come when the deprived and oppressed people of their country would boot them out of office. In Gambia, 22 years of Jammeh’s rule left bitterness in the hearts of many people. While some critics of his government went underground, others disappeared and their whereabouts remain unknown till date. The economy was plundered beyond imagination. Development was lopsided. Some ethnic groups were ostracised. The government used security forces to silence perceived enemies of the authorities. Gambia became a replica of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
Jammeh took over the mantle of leadership after he successfully led the coup that toppled President Dawda Jawara in 1994. At the time, he told the people that he was an agent of change whose mission was to improve their living condition. But absolute power corrupts absolutely. Soon, he became an ‘Emperor’ surrounded by bad advisers, opportunists and fair-weather loyalists. The fear of Jammeh became the beginning of wisdom.
Despite the worldwide condemnation that trailed his refusal to step down after he lost the president election last year, Jammeh departed the country unrepentant. Even as he begins a new life in Equatorial Guinea, the former strongman believes he is the bona fide President of the country. He is not alone in his thinking. His supporters (including a section of the army) accuse ECOWAS of humiliating their leader and imposing an illegitimate leader on the country.
What this means is that Jammeh is still ‘alive’ in the Gambia. It is certain that his supporters would go ‘underground’ and map out strategies as ‘the Resistance’ to derail Barrow’s government. And they would always receive directives from their ‘paymaster.’ African dictators do not give up easily.
Therefore, Barrow has enormous challenges to overcome. He knows this too well. If he must conquer, he must start with a genuine process of uniting the country. He must allay the fears of the opposition, including members of Jammeh’s party as well as his Jola ethnic group. Barrow could be described as politically stainless because he has not been in government before. He thus has better chances of having the ear of the people, winning their confidence, irrespective of their political, ethnic and religious affinity.
His message of building a new Gambia must be clear and precise. Barrow must see himself as a bridge-builder. His words must match his actions.
In separate interviews he granted Al Jazeera and The New York Times, respectively, he pledged not to disappoint the electorate. While the interview with Al Jazeera was granted in Gambia just after he was declared winner of the election, the interview with The New York Times was held in Senegal just before he was sworn in.
An analysis of his response to questions raised in both interviews shows he understands the problems of the people and is prepared to effect a regime change that will boost the socio-economic life of the citizens. He said he would encourage Gambians in the Diaspora to return and “offer their services” in any area they feel they can contribute.
He also said he would free all political prisoners, install a democratic government that “is run on the principles of the rule of law” and “soon everybody will appreciate the new government.” But, importantly, he said the government will inaugurate a “Truth-and-Reconciliation Commission,” because, as he put it, “you cannot act without getting the truth, getting the facts. It’s what we want to do first, as our first step and we’ll wait for the recommendation that we’ll get from Truth-and-Reconciliation Commission. Based on that, we will act.”
Barrow raised the hopes of the Gambian people when he said he would introduce reforms in the judiciary, public service, guarantee job security, review salaries of civil servants, boost agriculture, encourage mining, technology, energy production, manufacturing, and protect the environment. On the presidency, he said he would introduce a two-term limit for the President. Presidents Jawara and Jammeh aimed at becoming life presidents, respectively.
Elaborating, Barrow said: “We promised to do a lot of things, including electoral reforms. We will look at everything and avoid making mistakes to arrive at a final document. We want the democratic process to be very smooth in the future. We want a level playing field for every politician in the future, that’s our goal.”
What does he meant by “level playing field”? He explained that, “We need laws that will favour everybody,” and “we will reduce the powers of the president.” He, however, did not give details. Maybe it is too early to do so.
On how he hopes to revamp the economy, the President said he would seek the support of investors: “We will encourage investors to go into manufacturing and other industries.”
Jammeh provoked the West when he pulled the country from the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court (ICC). For Jammeh, it was good riddance to bad rubbish. But Barrow thinks otherwise and his government will return the country to the two organisations. Hear him: “We have been isolated for so many years, and we want Gambia to be very active again in this world. We want Gambia to be very friendly, and we want to join all the international organisations, the Commonwealth, and to respect all protocols as the new Gambia.”
Barrow’s ambitious programmes may excite the people. He has spoken like any other African leader. Lack of implementation has remained a major hindrance in the development process of African countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. Littered throughout the region are white elephant projects that serve as conduits to siphon public funds to the private pockets of politicians and their business allies.
The Gambia, it would appear, has been polluted by political miscreants. Will Barrow not dance to the gallery when the euphoria is over? Will he not succumb to pressure from political associates who have devious plans? Will he have the courage to separate the wheat from the chaff? He came to power through a coalition of seven political parties.
He was nominated by the coalition after the leader the United Democratic Party and main opposition presidential candidate, Ousainou Darboe, was sentenced to three months in prison over the unrest that rocked the country for weeks. Therefore, he is a child of circumstance. Now that the battle is won, how he shares the ‘spoils of war’ would determine how far he would go with his programme. There is no doubt about this premise.
With the international community watching unfolding events in the country, it is hoped that the leaders of the coalition would stand up to the challenge of giving the President total cooperation for him to deliver optimum service to the people. This calls for discipline, patriotism and self-denial on the part of top members of the coalition. They must collectively shun the ‘winner takes all’ principle and promote a ‘win-win’ spirit within and outside the government. That is the only way to convince the world that they are a new breed of politicians.
Jammeh’s sins that Barrow must avoid
If truly Barrow wants to succeed, he must avoid the pitfalls of Jammeh and his ilk. An analysis of leadership within and outside Africa shows that political leaders are often tempted to hang on to power for various reasons, even when the Constitution forbids tenure extension. All over Africa, the crisis of tenure elongation and manipulation of the constitution is rocking many countries. But for the overwhelming pressure on Jammeh, he would have been in power till now.
Barrow has talked about a two-term tenure for the President. It is hoped he will not wake up one day and dance to a new tune. He must learn to quit when the ovation is loudest. Again, Jammeh has been described as an arrogant leader who lacked respect for the citizenry. Reports have cited his attack on the country’s largest ethnic group, the Madinkas. He was said to have described them as “rats” that he would “wipe out.” Barrow must not regard his Fula ethnic group as superior to other ethnic groups, just because he is now the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
The two major religions in Gambia are Islam and Christianity. While Muslims constitute 95.7 per cent of the population, Christians make up 4.2 per cent. The two groups have lived together as brothers and sisters over the years. Also, Chapter 1, Section 1(1) of the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia clearly states that the country is a sovereign secular republic. But Jammeh went on to declare the country an Islamic state, to the annoyance of other religious groups. Though some analysts have argued that he took the action to “attract the sympathy of Arab states” after he lost the friendship of the West, it was an abuse of the rights of the people. Now is the time for the new President to fulfil his electoral promise to halt the assault on the Constitution. A stitch in time saves nine.
Fate of Kanilai, Jammeh’s community
Residents of Jammeh’s village, Kanilai, have expressed mixed feelings over the fall of their son, according to reports. This is expected. After all, Jammeh did not neglect the community. Reports said he built two major roads leading to the village, which is 100 kilometres from Banjul. Interestingly, he named one of the roads after him and the other after his wife. Also, he built “a huge palace, several sports centres and a zoo” in the village. According to reports, after the swearing in of Barrow in Senegal, and the consequent deployment of ECOWAS-sponsored forces to Gambia, the people expressed anger.
“While Senegalese troops, backed by Nigerian air power, were welcomed with open arms elsewhere in Gambia, in Kanilai, the villagers were enraged.” The atmosphere in the village was beclouded with “nostalgia, resignation and even bitterness.” Therefore, Kanilai may be a test ground for Barrow’s government.
There is apprehension that the government might begin a vendetta against the people, but to do so is to plant the seeds of disharmony that could spiral and get several communities embroiled in bloody clashes with time. Rather, the new government must turn its back on Jammeh and embrace the community.