Hope re­stored in The Gam­bia

Most of the na­tion breathed a col­lec­tive sigh of relief when ex-pres­i­dent Yahya Jam­meh left the coun­try

African Independent - - NEWS - LOUISE HUNT

ONLY dis­graced ex-pres­i­dent Yahya Jam­meh’s most hard­core sup­port­ers turned up to watch as he boarded a pri­vate jet at the week­end for ex­ile in Equa­to­rial Guinea.

Some sol­diers and mem­bers of his po­lit­i­cal party cried and shouted: “Daddy, Daddy”. Oth­ers jeered at sup­port­ers of The Gam­bia’s new coali­tion gov­ern­ment. But once he took to the skies, most of the na­tion breathed a col­lec­tive sigh of relief.

“We didn’t be­lieve that he would leave, and the fact that this has hap­pened demo­crat­i­cally is the great­est achieve­ment,” said 24-year-old Ami­nata, who is part of a youth group help­ing Gam­bian refugees as they ar­rived back at the ferry ter­mi­nal in Ban­jul.

“A year ago, we thought this would be im­pos­si­ble. But now we are hope­ful that things will change. Now, we feel that des­tiny is in our hands, be­cause lead­ers will have to be more ac­count­able.”

The mo­ment was all the more re­mark­able be­cause of what was at stake if the sit­u­a­tion had un­rav­elled. “We are glad that Jam­meh has gone, but in a solemn way, be­cause we came so close to war,” said Ami­nata’s friend, Khadija.

Adama Bar­row, Gam­bia’s new pres­i­dent, was sworn in last week. The cer­e­mony took place in Dakar, Sene­gal, and he was not plan­ning to re­turn home un­til a West African military in­ter­ven­tion force had se­cured the coun­try.

It was poised across the bor­der the night Bar­row was sworn in, and the threat of force was cru­cial in but­tress­ing me­di­a­tion ef­forts by the West African re­gional bloc Ecowas that even­tu­ally suc­ceeded in pres­sur­ing Jam­meh to ac­cept his elec­toral de­feat and step down.

Ecowas troops and military ve­hi­cles now pa­trol the streets of Ban­jul. Gam­bian sol­diers are be­ing dis­armed over fears that rogue el­e­ments, still loyal to Jam­meh, could cause trou­ble.

Jam­meh, along with a group of other young of­fi­cers, came to power in a coup in 1994. Af­ter 22 years of op­pres­sive rule, in which ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion, tor­ture and dis­ap­pear­ances were com­mon, he suf­fered a shock elec­toral de­feat on De­cem­ber 1.

At first, he ac­cepted the re­sult, only to change tack a week later and de­clare the poll void. He pe­ti­tioned the Supreme Court for a fresh elec­tion, but as he had sacked most of the judges 18 months ear­lier, the court could not hear the chal­lenge be­fore May.

He then de­clared a state of emergency that tech­ni­cally would have al­lowed him to stay in power for an­other three months. This des­per­ate, last-ditch at­tempt to cling to power was ig­nored by the West African lead­ers who were work­ing to re­solve the cri­sis.

By then, Jam­meh’s grip on power was al­ready slip­ping. Most of his cabi­net had de­serted him and his army chief, Gen­eral Ous­man Bad­jie, had con­ceded that his sol­diers would not re­sist the Ecowas in­ter­ven­tion force.

Bar­row’s in­au­gu­ra­tion speech em­braced the his­tory-mak­ing mo­ment. “This is a day no Gam­bian will ever for­get,” he said.

“The ca­pac­ity to ef­fect change through the bal­lot box has proven that power be­longs to the peo­ple in The Gam­bia. Vi­o­lent change is ban­ished for­ever from the po­lit­i­cal life of our coun­try. All Gam­bians are there­fore win­ners.”

The fact that Bar­row’s swear­ing-in couldn’t take place on Gam­bian soil is a re­minder of the regime’s far-reach­ing net of op­pres­sion. Jam­meh had or­dered there to be no in­au­gu­ra­tion celebrations. But, noth­ing could stop at least sev­eral thou­sand young Gam­bians tak­ing to the streets, with one united cry: “Gam­bia has de­cided.”

#Gam­bi­a­Has­De­cided be­came a so­cial me­dia phe­nom­e­non, de­fy­ing Jam­meh’s at­tempts to si­lence dis­sent. Hav­ing put them­selves on the line, young Gam­bians who voted for change are de­ter­mined to see a new Gam­bia achieved.

“The day the coali­tion was formed was the day the whole coun­try smiled,” said Mo­modou Jal­low, 28. But Jal­low also of­fered a sober­ing re­minder to the coali­tion not to lose sight of how they came to power. “I voted for Adama Bar­row not be­cause I liked him but be­cause I didn’t want to vote for Jam­meh,” he said.

Jal­low wants to see a change in the con­sti­tu­tion, in par­tic­u­lar the in­tro­duc­tion of a two-term pres­i­den­tial limit.There are plenty of other chal­lenges fac­ing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion. Af­ter more than 22 years of Jam­meh’s au­to­cratic rule, it must start from scratch: in­stall a cabi­net, in­sti­tute a proper rule of law, and launch military and po­lit­i­cal re­forms.

Bar­row be­gan an­nounc­ing his cabi­net on Mon­day. A no­table pick was Vice-Pres­i­dent Fa­toumata Tam­ba­jang, a for­mer min­is­ter and UN De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme staffer cred­ited as the main force in gal­vanis­ing the pre­vi­ously frac­tious op­po­si­tion par­ties.

One of the new ad­min­is­tra­tion’s first tasks will be to sup­port the re­turn of about 46 000 refugees who fled to Sene­gal and Guinea over the past weeks, fear­ing im­pend­ing con­flict.

About 25 000 have also been in­ter­nally dis­placed, ac­cord­ing to the Gam­bian Red Cross So­ci­ety. Al­most ev­ery­one in the cap­i­tal sent fam­ily mem­bers away to the sanc­tu­ary of rel­a­tives in other parts of the coun­try.

Ex­tra pres­sure is be­ing placed on al­ready stretched food sup­plies and san­i­ta­tion in some of Gam­bia’s poor­est com­mu­ni­ties, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by United Pur­pose, an NGO.

Jam­meh’s stub­born­ness also hurt Gam­bia’s al­ready ail­ing econ­omy by deal­ing a blow to its main rev­enue earner – tourism. As the cri­sis deep­ened, West­ern gov­ern­ments sent char­ter planes to pick up hol­i­day­mak­ers, right in the mid­dle of peak sea­son.

But up­per­most in many Gam­bians’ minds is how Jam­meh and his ac­com­plices will be made to pay for the crimes and abuses per­pe­trated un­der his regime.

Bar­row’s ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to es­tab­lish a truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mit­tee, which will gather ev­i­dence. But some peo­ple do not think this process will go far enough.

The new gov­ern­ment’s spokesman, Hal­ifa Sal­lah, has al­ready hinted that it may not be in the na­tional in­ter­est to delve too deeply into the past. – Irin

Louise Hunt is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and reg­u­lar Irin con­trib­u­tor spe­cial­is­ing in so­cial af­fairs and in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment


RE­TURN­ING: Gam­bians who fled the coun­try, fear­ing im­pend­ing con­flict, re­turn home.

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