After election crisis, Gambia's newly sworn-in president finally returns home

Overcoming the legacy of political repression and economic mismanagement will require the continued support of the international community, experts say. But President Barrow – and Gambian citizens – are optimistic.

Thierry Gouegnon/ Reuters
Street sellers are seen with Gambia's new President Adama Barrow's portrait on the day he is slated to return to the country, in Serekunda, Gambia on January 26, 2017.

On Adama Barrow’s inauguration day, there was silence on the streets of Banjul. Not so on Thursday, when thousands of people turned out to greet their new president. 

"A new page in Gambian history is being turned," said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, as Reuters reported.

Mr. Barrow’s inauguration had taken place in the Gambian embassy in neighboring Senegal last week, as longtime leader Yahya Jammeh refused to stand down.

After representatives from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) negotiated Mr. Jammeh’s exit on Saturday, Barrow returned home on Thursday. The crowd erupted in cheers of "Welcome!," "Welcome!" as, dressed in white, he stepped out of a small plane and made his way down a red carpet to greet hundreds of assembled officials. Fighter jets from ECOWAS then passed overhead.

Barrow’s return seems to mark a turning-point of sorts for the tiny African nation, as the focus turns to how he – and the team he assembles – will govern. Expectations are high, but as he confronts the challenges presented by more than two decades of authoritarian rule, Barrow remains optimistic.

"I think the bad part is finished now," he told the Associated Press on Thursday, promising to "get the ball rolling" as soon as his Cabinet is assembled.

Tired of Jammeh’s rule, which had become increasingly authoritarian, Gambia’s opposition parties decided to throw their support behind a single candidate in December’s election. They chose Barrow. Promising change and democracy, "no-drama Adama," as he became known, went on to win the presidency. 

When the results were announced, Jammeh at first agreed to step down. Later, however, he reversed that decision, clinging to power beyond the date of Barrow’s inauguration. ECOWAS officials were involved throughout the transition, working to persuade Jammeh to leave peacefully, and also promising military support to Barrow.

On Saturday, Jammeh finally agreed to leave the country, fleeing to Equatorial Guinea along with his family, security guards – and the wealth he amassed during his presidency.

His departure paved the way for Barrow to return. Many Gambians are jubilant, and Barrow’s return was also heralded as a sign of the success of regional intervention in securing a democratic transition, with the hashtag #LessonsfromGambia trending across much of Africa after Jammeh’s departure.

"Every Gambian must be free. We suffered for 22 years, but now enough is enough," Seedia Badjie told the Associated Press.

"We expect a lot of things from Barrow," Modou Fall told the AP. "We want the forces to stay so that we can reform our army ... and we need development in this country."

Barrow inherits a country where the state coffers are empty, making finance an immediate challenge. Its biggest export is peanuts, and many migrants from the country are making their way to Europe.

Barrow has also planned reforms to the security services and to the constitution. His spokesman, Halifa Sallah, told the AP that Barrow’s team intends to establish a human rights commission and develop a freedom of information act.

He has asked the ECOWAS military contingent to stay in Gambia for a few months, in order to assure a peaceful transition. An ECOWAS official told Reuters that the body was considering Barrow’s request. So far, the troops have encountered no resistance.

Whenever the troops leave, their departure should not be considered the end of ECOWAS’ involvement in Gambia, Amnesty International West Africa researcher Sabrina Mahtani told The Christian Science Monitor’s Ryan Lenora Brown. 

"ECOWAS and the international community will have to continue to engage and support The Gambia going forward," helping it become a model of a country that overcame years of political repression, she says. "This struggle is not quite over yet."

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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