Hope restored in The Gambia
Most of the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when ex-president Yahya Jammeh left the country
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.