Upset in Gambia election: The unlikely rise of 'no drama Adama'

Adama Barrow never planned on running for president. In fact, he only learned of his candidacy when he showed up to vote in September. On Friday, he was declared president-elect of Gambia.

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate Barrow's election victory in Banjul, Gambia, Friday.

A decade and a half ago, Adama Barrow was working 15-hour shifts as a security guard at retailer Argos in north London, harboring dreams of making his mark as a real estate developer.

On Friday, he was declared president-elect of his homeland, the tiny riverside West African nation of Gambia, ending more than two decades of rule by Yahya Jammeh, a feared authoritarian who once said he would rule for "a billion years."

Gambians are now looking to the man nicknamed "no drama Adama" because of his cool, calm collectedness, to reverse 22 years under President Jammeh's erratic rule that have hurt the economy and made the popular holiday destination a regional pariah.

It is not a job that the soft-spoken Mr. Barrow – a member of the Fula ethnic group from rural eastern Gambia – had sought out. He only learned he was even being considered as a party leader when he turned up for the vote in September.

Jammeh, a former army officer, seized power in a 1994 coup before he had even turned 30. In contrast, Barrow, 51, was unknown to most of his compatriots before the main opposition United Democratic Party's (UDP) leadership election.

"(Before) Barrow came to vote for a new UDP party leader, he didn't even know his name was on the ballot," said Ramzia Diab, a leading member of the coalition that backed his run for the nation's presidency.

In April, small protests in Banjul calling for electoral reform had led to dozens of arrests. Two UDP members died in custody while others were sentenced to jail time.

When the UDP's then-president Ousainou Darboe, who had lost to Jammeh in four successive elections of questionable credibility, was handed a three-year prison sentence, the party needed a leader.

"(Barrow) was absolutely thrust into this position," said Jeffrey Smith, founding director of the advocacy group Vanguard Africa. "He took hold of that leadership and played a seminal role in rallying the disparate opposition leaders around him."

'The opposite of Jammeh'

Until he took control, Barrow was mainly known within the UDP, which he joined in 1996, for his methodical management of the books as party treasurer.

But he quickly proved to be an adept opponent, turning Jammeh's attempts to stamp out dissent against the administration and galvanizing a coalition of eight parties to back a single candidate in the Dec. 1 vote. They chose him.

"I am overwhelmed by your confidence," Barrow said timidly in a speech accepting the candidacy.

Barrow plans to reverse some of Jammeh's capricious acts, including stopping Gambia's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court announced last month, his spokesman Karamba Touray said. He will also ask to rejoin the Commonwealth and nullify Jammeh's declaration of Gambia as an Islamic republic.

"He is the absolute opposite of Jammeh. He wants to restore democracy, it will be entirely different," Mr. Touray said.

The biggest test of this ambition comes in three years' time: Barrow has pledged to step down by then to open up newly democratic Gambia's political space.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.