When he ended the brutal 22-year presidency of Yahya Jammeh, he was hailed as a hero. But the hope inspired by Adama Barrow’s ascent has long since faded
Almost three years ago, Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule over the small west African nation of the Gambia came to a shock end. Fed up with the constant fear and human rights abuses, a floundering economy and endemic corruption, Gambians voted out one of Africa’s most notorious strongmen.
The man who beat him, estate agent, businessman and one-time Argos security guard Adama Barrow, was a political nobody who united a divided opposition in a coalition, promising to create jobs, repeal bad laws and create a level political playing field. He also promised to be only a transitional president, resigning after three years.
With the deadline creeping up, however, Gambians who voted Barrow in say there has been little progress and many abuses of power in the country since he took over. Some even draw comparisons with Jammeh’s governing style, and worry that he too may use constitutional changes to rule for decades too.
“In terms of the corruption, the inefficiency, the bad judgement, that basically is the same. Multiple abuses continue all the time,” said the prominent Gambian human rights activist Madi Jobarteh. “The only difference one would see would be [that there are fewer] gross human rights violations … and probably the extent to which Jammeh was grabbing land [and] properties.”
For a moment in 2016, Barrow inspired hope in a cowed country. Two days before the election, a group of opposition politicians rarely seen together arrived in a clearing near the capital. This was not the kind of meeting you usually got away with attending in Jammeh’s repressive country, where many opposition leaders were in jail. As uncharismatic, mild Barrow arrived, he was mobbed by a euphoric crowd.
The elation reached its peak after Jammeh finally accepted defeat, flying off to Equatorial Guinea with a plane full of close aides and luxury cars. Barrow was hailed by adoring crowds wherever he went.
However, the coalition fell apart within months due to political infighting, and hopes have been deflating ever since.
With 41.5% of the Gambia’s youth unemployed in 2018, according to the Gambia Bureau of Statistics, tens of thousands of people each year are still risking their lives trying to get to Europe to find work. People’s living conditions have not improved, experts say, and neither have basic services.
In the official budget, most of the country’s money is spent on defence, security and foreign affairs. Education and health are lower priorities.
Off the books, the situation is even worse. The Gambia was heavily criticised in the US’s recent report on fiscal transparency, which said that the government had off-budget accounts supporting military and intelligence spending that “were not subject to adequate oversight or audit”.
“There are a lot of abuse of resources, abuse of power,” Jobarteh said. “That’s huge frustration and, practically, people have not seen tangible socio-economic change in their lives.”
Between security spending and the high level of debt inherited from Jammeh, there is little to invest in building Gambia’s economy, which Barrow said was his top priority in an interview with the Guardian shortly after taking office. New concessional loans are making the country even more indebted.
The country’s donors are getting worried.
“Perception is, a bit, changing [on] how good a story this is going to be,” said Attila Lajos, the EU’s ambassador to the Gambia. “There’s a degree of frustration among international partners … because of a certain kind of deficit, aspects of transition or development, or pretty much the lack of that. Security sector reform, for example, is seriously lagging behind.”
A truth, reconciliation and reparations commission examining the abuses of the previous regime has won much praise. However, little has been done to reduce the Gambia’s outsize army, or remove those with questionable human rights records in the military, police and intelligence service.
The security services have cracked down heavily on protests. In July, dozens of protesters calling for better services in the city of Brikama were tear-gassed and hospitalised. The rapper Killa Ace, arrested with 36 others in August after protests against alleged police brutality, was only last week released on bail.
The government is bracing for much bigger protests over Barrow’s plans to stay beyond the agreed three years, however. With the political coalition he fronted long dead, he plans to serve the full five-year term and then run again.
“He was misguided and misled into this [agreeing to serve for only three years]. There is no transitional president, he’s not a transitional president. He’s an elected president and executive president,” said Barrow’s close adviser Seedy Njie. “When they made this agreement, there were a lot of politicians around him who were misguiding him. When he assumed office … he looked at the laws and he realised that he was elected to serve a period of five years.”
A movement, Three Years Jotna (Three Years is Enough), is calling on Barrow to step down as promised, with large protests expected in December. The government has bought a water cannon in preparation, to “pour hot water” on troublemakers.
“The government generally doesn’t want protest,” said Jobarteh, adding that the protests had the potential to explode, particularly if the government tried to ban or limit them.
Jobarteh said he thought people might accept Barrow staying for the full five years if he negotiated with them, offering to fulfil some of the promises made in the manifesto, but nothing beyond that.
“Anything that would look like him continuing for more than five years – I don’t think these folks are ready for that.”
Barrow is expected to announce the creation of a new party within the next six months, to run for a second term in 2021. The groundwork has been laid in the form of two new groups, the Barrow Youth Movement and the Barrow Fans Club, which are trying to attract Jammeh’s old supporters. People like Njie, who was Jammeh’s last information minister, are key to this mission.
Analysts and diplomats worry that Barrow may try to stay on even beyond two terms because, although a new constitution is being drafted that would reinstate term limits, he could decide that when it is adopted, it resets the clock on his own terms.
If he does, he could hold power for almost as long as Jammeh did. According to analysts he is using similar tactics, allegedly dishing out cash at government events, promising basic services to villagers in return for setting up branches of the Barrow Youth Movement, and spending off-budget.
“I don’t see any accountability. It’s very worrying,” said Jobarteh.
Lajos said that eventually, these methods could erode any of the government’s positive achievements. “If the average Gambian doesn’t feel there’s anything better about this change, I think democracy in this country will not really prevail,” he said. “Beyond the fact that it’s illegal, beyond the fact that it’s against any kind of democratic rules, the danger is that people will perceive no difference between a dictatorship and a democracy.”