Gambia’s Ex-Leader Left His Mark—and a Grim Legacy

The cityscape of Gambia’s capital Banjul on Jan. 24. Photo: thierry gouegnon/Reuters

Hoping for economic opportunity, young men flee impoverished nation Yahya Jammeh ruled for 22 years; ‘our girls have no one to marry’ in Salikenni

SALIKENNI, Gambia—Across Yahya Jammeh bridge and on the side of Yahya Jammeh highway, amid fields of bushy mango trees and giant baobabs, there is a town of women, children and aging men. Most young men have left.

Of the 420 households in this peanut-producing community, each has lost at least one member to an exodus of young men seeking a better life in Europe and the chance to send money back to their impoverished families.

The settlement of cement houses is part of the legacy of Mr. Jammeh, Gambia’s longtime leader who stepped down on Jan. 21 after more than 22 years as president.

Mr. Jammeh’s weekslong tantrum over ceding power—and his theatrical exit—has drawn attention to this tiny West African nation and its former president.

But, in contrast to Mr. Jammeh’s taste for fancy cars and other prized assets, such as rare-breed sheep with swirly horns, most Gambians live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations.

The country’s stunted economy has swung between a 1% recession and 2% growth in recent years, and more than a third of the remaining workforce is unemployed.

Between 2008 and 2015, nearly 40,000 men left, mostly for economic reasons. Some 1,200 applied for asylum in the European Union in 2008; the number exploded to 13,405 mostly unsuccessful requests in 2015, the EU statistics agency said.

Several hundred of them came from Salikenni.

“Our girls have no one to marry,” said Baseku Kanteh, a 48-year-old peanut farmer. Three of Mr. Kanteh’s brothers and his oldest son left for Europe in 2015. But the gregarious farmer is still waiting for remittances of the kind that are keeping many of his neighbors afloat; all four of his relatives are stuck in refugee camps in Sicily.

Gambia’s challenges reach beyond the drain of brain and muscle that will be hard to compensate for without a large-scale return of émigrés. Its economy, which produces less than $1 billion a year, lacks sophisticated industries and its most active export sector—peanuts—has been so heavily regulated that farmers struggle to make a living, let alone garner sufficient profit to scale up production.

Before Mr. Jammeh took power in 1994, farmers traded their produce freely, often to neighboring Senegal. But today, they can only sell to the government-run Gambia Groundnut Corp., which has an export monopoly.

“One ton of groundnut is 15,000 dalasi ($350) here, but 25,000 [dalasi] in Senegal,” Mr. Kanteh said. “But the government has forbidden us from selling to Senegal.”

New President Adama Barrow, who was expected to return to Gambia on Thursday after being inaugurated in Senegal last week, has promised to improve the economy by investing in infrastructure and manufacturing.

But the government’s coffers are nearly empty: Official debt is above 100% of gross domestic product—more than twice the level the International Monetary Fund says is sustainable for countries as poor as Gambia—and local authorities are investigating allegations that Mr. Jammeh smuggled millions of dollars out of the country before leaving for Equatorial Guinea.

A combination of foreign-exchange manipulation, profligate public spending and centralized control of economic activity has depressed the country’s business environment, the International Monetary Fund said. The recent political upheaval led tourists to leave in droves, dealing another blow to the economy.

Children play at a primary school funded by a German charity in Salikenni, Gambia.

 Children play at a primary school funded by a German charity in Salikenni, Gambia.   Photo:  Matina Stevis/The Wall Street Journal 

Abduli Dibba, a teacher at a Salikenni’s German-charity funded primary school, laments the constant outflow of former students. He fears the change in government won’t do much for the children in his class, as the task of expanding education and creating jobs in Gambia is “too big for just one president for just two or four years.”

“That there are little kids playing out here today,” he said, pointing to the school’s playground, “does not mean they will be studying or working here in a few years.”

Billboards feature former Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh in his hometown of Kanilai.   Photo:  seyllou/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images 

It is a very different story 30 miles to the south, in Mr. Jammeh’s hometown of Kanilai, where locals are resentful of his ouster. “He built us a road, a hospital. People here work. Now what will happen to us?” said an agitated young kiosk owner, who identified himself only as Ibrahim.

Under a deal struck with other regional leaders to expedite his exit, Mr. Jammeh won’t be stripped of his lawfully acquired assets.

Armored personnel carriers and soldiers with automatic weapons were guarding the former president’s retreat, a vast property that features a palace, fields, livestock and a zoo.

Kanilai-branded products—including beef, lamb and vegetables from Mr. Jammeh’s farms and uniforms for state and military personnel stitched together in his factories—are ubiquitous across Gambia.

A prize bull in one of the Kanilai branded farms can fetch as much as $1,700 during Ramadan, the Muslim holiday when animal slaughter is traditional.
A prize bull in one of the Kanilai branded farms can fetch as much as $1,700 during Ramadan, the Muslim holiday when animal slaughter is traditional.    Photo:  Matina Stevis/The Wall Street Journal 

Another one of Mr. Jammeh’s properties, just outside the capital Banjul, teemed with haggling middlemen selling cows and sheep. The vendors get to keep about 5% of the price they fetch for an animal. The rest, they said, goes to Mr. Jammeh.

“It’s good business,” said Mohamed Jawara, one of the men tasked with selling a prize bull for as much as 80,000 dalasi. “Jammeh will keep it and I’ll have my job, so I’m happy.”

Others aren’t so sure they will find happiness in Gambia soon. Koli Lomin, who left Salikenni six years ago and found work on an Italian farm, says he is ready to return home once things get better. “But I think it will take a long time,” he said.

Source: wsj