Gambia's diaspora helped oust a dictator. Now they're asking: What's next?

Tens of thousands of Gambians left the country during former President Jammeh's regime, and many helped garner support for his rival. One year into the new administration, they're carving out new roles, keen to rebuild the country.

James Courtright
Malanding Jaiteh, who, like other members of a Gambian diaspora,has returned home, stands inside the house he's building for his family in the outskirts of Banjul. 'I want to actively participate in the rebuilding of The Gambia,' says Mr. Jaiteh, a scientist who moved back from New York last year. 'I see my position and my abilities as an opportunity.'

Fatu Camara was in the middle of one of her live-streamed, midnight shows on Jan. 21, 2017 when she interrupted regular programming to break the news: Gambian strongman Yahya Jammeh was fleeing the country, after 23 years of repressive rule.

“I had thousands of people listening to the radio that night,” says Ms. Camara, a Gambian exile living in the United States. “We were all crying, it was so emotional. Jammeh was the only president we knew; we grew up when he came to power.”

For Camara and her listeners, some of the tens of thousands of Gambians who fled during Mr. Jammeh's repressive regime, it was a life-changing win – one they'd contributed to from afar. But even as they celebrated, many emigrants' thoughts turned to next steps: How could they help remake the country?

It was a particularly meaningful question for Camara, a broadcaster who founded Gambia’s first TV talk show and served two brief stints as Jammeh’s press secretary. In 2013, however, she was charged with sedition and detained for three weeks, accused of spreading “false news” to tarnish his image. After her release, she fled to Georgia. But having Gambia’s problems out of sight didn’t mean out of mind. Camara founded the Fatu Network, a site reporting news from home. And like many Gambians living abroad, she pushed to help real-estate developer Adama Barrow defeat Jammeh at the ballot box in December 2016 – and to mobilize the international community to enforce the people’s will, after one of Africa’s longest serving dictators refused to step down. 

But it was just the first step in making the Gambia they’d dreamed of returning to. One year later, the diaspora is carving out a new role, keen to contribute to prosperity and democracy in the country they fled. For some, that means continuing support from afar; for others, it means coming home at last.

“I want to actively participate in the rebuilding of The Gambia,” says Malanding Jaiteh, a scientist who made the move from New York last year. “I see my position and my abilities as an opportunity. I believe that what I can put in place here will last beyond my lifetime.”

Watching, working from afar

During Jammeh’s years of authoritarian rule and corruption, more than 100,000 of Gambia's 2 million citizens left the country, establishing communities from Seattle to Oslo.

One of them is Dr. Jaiteh, who came to the United States for a Ph.D. program in 1993, assuming he’d return home after graduation to continue his work in natural resource management. A year into his program, however, Jammeh came to power through a coup. Considering job offers in Gambia and the US, Jaiteh faced a tough decision – but thought back to his recent visit home, which coincided with the public chase and execution of a military officer accused of treason.

“People were fearful something else was going to happen next. You could feel that,” Jaiteh says. “That really said to me something is seriously wrong here.” He moved his family to New York and began working at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, investigating illegal sand mining and land acquisition in Gambia in his free time.

Jaiteh, who helped lead the Diaspora Election Command Center, and Camara are part of a loose but influential group of Gambians abroad who helped unite the fractured political opposition around Mr. Barrow, raising more than $100,000 for his campaign. Barrow, a first-time political candidate, went on to win the election by a 43.3 percent to 39.6 percent margin.

The diaspora leadership also worked with Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit that advocates for pro-democracy politicians. Jeffery Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, helped Gambians in the US get meetings at the State Department and connect with international media. The diaspora was crucial in focusing attention on Gambia in the lead-up to the election, he says.

“Dictators grow strength in the shadows. They become more emboldened in the darkness and [the diaspora] were able to take that away from Jammeh,” he says. “The international spotlight was on the country. The people in the country recognized this; they were becoming more emboldened because of that.”

But it still came as a surprise when Jammeh lost the election and fled to Equatorial Guinea, after threats of regional military intervention. Not only did many Gambians abroad have new hope for reform – but returning home safely, period, seemed a possibility. In the waning years of his regime, after a failed coup attempt, Jammeh had treated the diaspora as a threat to his control, particularly journalists and activists who had fled the country.

Jaiteh returned for his first post-vote visit in March. Another visit in July convinced him to buy land and start building a house. He was moving back.

A new chapter begins

No definite count of returnees exists, according to Omar Kebbeh, an economist with the US Bureau of Economic Analysis. But not every Gambian who wants to contribute to the country’s future has a move in mind. An effort to keep engaging the diaspora has been spearheaded by the Migration and Sustainable Development in the Gambia project (MSDG), which is establishing policy recommendations to encourage them to invest in development at home: from creating government bonds targeting the diaspora, to co-development projects, to reducing the cost of remittances, to utilizing them in an informal ambassador system.

“Before the government invests so much money bringing consulars, they have lots of Gambians in the diaspora who are ambassadors already, officially and unofficially,” explains Ndey Jobarteh, a founder of MSDG’s “Gambia House” center for engagement in Oslo. Last year the center helped arrange a visit of potential Norwegian investors to Gambia, and has recently started offering informal consular services to Gambians in Scandinavia.

Remittances already contribute 22 percent of Gambia’s total GDP, according to Mr. Kebbeh. And the diaspora is contributing to the housing market as people return to establish private businesses. “There is openness in the new government … there is now competition,” he says. Last December, MSDG took advantage of many Gambians’ family visits to host a series of meetings seeking advice and pitching their ideas – a “diaspora month” they plan to have each year.

“My administration recognizes the Gambian Diaspora as the eighth region of The Gambia,” Barrow said in January, as he launched more diaspora-engagement initiatives.

Not everyone welcomes their help. Multiple people who spoke to the Monitor referenced a compilation of returnee resumes sent to the new government by diaspora leaders, seemingly ignored by officials, and alleged that prejudice was at play. Nor are all returnees satisfied with the new administration’s first year.

“The Gambian diaspora live in countries that exemplify successful democratic governance,” says Abdoul Salaam Secka, the technical director of MSDG. “Standards in public service are high. So naturally this is something they want to see replicated in The Gambia. But almost by default, where The Gambia is starting from, from a very low place, and it’s just natural that the pace of progress will be slow, so that creates a degree of anxiety between government and diasporans.”

Going home isn’t easy – particularly for businesses like Camara’s. “Living in the West we’re used to 24 hours of electricity, and then you go back to Gambia and it’s 20 hours of blackout,” she explains. But she’s committed to returning to invest her skills at home.

“No matter how America or the West is, home is where the heart is,” she says. “We want to be in our country where we eat our food, where we go see our grandparents every day, where we greet our family members. That’s what we want to do.”

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