Winter, 2016. For 22 years, Gambia has been led by Yahya Jammeh. Since he came to power as a young military officer, his dictatorship has defined the majority of Gambia’s history as a free nation. While Gambia is a democracy in name, Jammeh’s reelections have been marred with accusations of fraud and voter repression, in addition to the censure of human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch for torture, the deaths of journalists, and the abuse of LGBT rights. Even so, reform seemed unlikely. Although Jammeh faced multiple coup attempts form within the military, he officially cracked down on opposition in 2006. A National Intelligence Agency formed. People began to disappear into a building marked, Gambia Produce Marketing Board. After his reelection in 2011 (with allegedly 72% of the popular vote), he told BBC that he was not afraid of being overthrown, or even murdered.
“I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so.”
After the unexpected victory of Adama Barrow, it seemed likely that Jammeh would never acquiesce his power; he acknowledged Barrow’s victory at first, but then retracted his words, threatening other West African countries with military retribution should they intervene on Barrow’s behalf. While Gambia faces the possibility of its first peaceful transfer of power, the threat of violence is real. Other countries in the region have faced similar difficulties. In 2010, Côte d’Ivoire was embroiled in a post-election conflict that cost more than 3,000 lives. Many are worried that a similar incident of foreign intervention could lead to a bloodbath in Gambia. Tensions mounted, and Adama Barrow fled to Senegal. There, he received news of his son’s death.
Operation Restore Democracy (UN Resolution 2337) was born. The United Nations Security Council backed the efforts of regional neighbors to provide military aid to Adama Barrow, a proposal introduced by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU). Supporters of the resolution hoped that military pressure from a combined force of 7,000 troops from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, and Mali would force Jammeh to abandon his dictatorship. Against Gambia’s estimated defense force of around 800 troops, there was little chance of defeat.
The deadline for Jammeh to recognize the election results came and then passed. Pressure mounted, and the advance of the troops stopped. The UN extended the deadline. Late January, Senegalese troops advanced into Gambia without UN approval, in the same region as the Senegalese conflicts with the Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC). As skirmishes broke out, Jammeh eventually ceded his post to Barrow. In the process, the deadline for Jammeh’s recognition was extended once again, and bypassed. As of February 19, 2017, the death toll from the conflict is not yet known. Adding to the issues at hand, it is suspected that Jammeh’s Gambia interfered in the MFDC separatist movement.
Amidst this dangerous climate, Barrow was sworn into office – not once, but twice. This time, it was in Banjul, Gambia. In his inaugural speech, he told a cheering crowd that it was time to face Gambia’s economic challenges. Barrow is a real-estate agent and former Argos security guard who won the highest office in his country through a wave of populist sentiment resulting from decades of poor infrastructure and political oppression under Jammeh. Currently, Barrow is welcomed by civilians and military personnel alike. General Ousman Badjie, one of the most powerful officials in Gambia and formerly an ardent supporter of Jammeh, publicly switched his support to Barrow.
For now, popular sentiment appears to be united. But in the process of this change, tens of thousands of Gambians have been displaced in neighboring Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. Moreover, the term length of five years is arguably too short of a timeframe to develop Gambia’s tourism-based economy, or even to enable it to weather external shocks like the 2014 Ebola epidemic. The World Bank estimates that in recent years, Gambia’s GDP has fallen by as much as 20% – a figure that is no doubt exacerbated by the Dalasi, the country’s overpriced currency.
The filling in of bureaucratic vacancies left by Jammeh’s rule and a renewed commitment to the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court may promote transparency and hold Gambia’s new leader accountable for his actions, but it could also divert Barrow’s attention from pressing domestic concerns. After all, Gambia has a precedent of populism; Jammeh was brought to power by a bloodless coup in 1994 – a coup that rode on resentment against former president Dawda Jawara. Jammeh’s supporters complained that Jawara formed too many international connections in Gambia’s time of need. Poverty, dissidents said, was the more urgent concern.
Whether President Barrow can deliver on his promise of reform remains to be seen. The international community will watch as the parliamentary elections of 2017 may completely change the political composition of Banjul.