Gambia: New under Adama Barrow?

Gambia's political challenges.


On 18 February, the Gambia will have a double celebration on Independence Day. Thousands will be dancing in the streets and waving the national flag to rejoice in the inauguration day of new president Adama Barrow.

He has a tough job ahead of him as he warned that the Gambia was “virtually bankrupt” due to the financial mismanagement of ex-president Yahya Jammeh, who reportedly took US$11 million from state funds before heading to Equatorial Guinea. The opening up of international relations were cemented by the visit to the Gambia by UK foreign minister Boris Johnson who said that Britain is ready to help the West African country improve its education system and infrastructure as well as boost tourism.

Barrow has promised to defend human rights, protect press freedom, rejoin the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Commonwealth in what has become known as “the new Gambia”. The former property developer has sought the help of overseas aid, saying that the country was “in need of immediate rescue”. He added: “We have just assumed the task of governing the country after decades of dictatorship and self-imposed isolation.”

 Barrow, the Gambia’s third president will be buoyed by the European Union’s fund of 225 million euros, a positive sign that the new regime is welcomed by many. Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development looked forward to “a peaceful democratic change in The Gambia”.

Mimica spoke of “promoting inclusive entrepreneurship schemes along various value chains with […] potential for exports.” The aid will go towards food insecurity, tackling unemployment and improving the country’s roads, the European Commission stated. Another 150 million euros will be released after a visit to the Gambia by an EU delegation.

Speaking at the signing of the EU deal, Barrow said that the country had only two months of foreign reserves left, and he is dealing with “an economy that is virtually bankrupt and in need of immediate rescue.”

He added that youth unemployment was at high levels. To address this, funding of 11 million euros will go towards The Gambia Youth Empowerment Project, focused on job creation for young people. This should address the issue of swathes of youngsters leaving the country, which sends the highest per capita number of migrants to Europe. “To stem the current migration trend, it is crucial to step up job creation and more meaningful income opportunities at home,” Trade Minister Isatou Touray said.

The project will target building specific skills amongst young people in sectors such as tourism and agriculture, as these are seen as the key areas for economic development. There are plans to strengthen emerging sectors such as the digital and IT services as well as vocational skills programmes to match business and market requirements.

The new administration will create a think tank of advisers on the environment, health, agriculture and other areas. Barrow is also overhauling the justice system and amending the constitution including removal of age limits for government positions.

Foreign donors and investors hope that the new administration is a positive step for human rights in the West African country. Gambia’s woeful human rights violations includes journalists and political activists arrested at peaceful protests and thrown into jail on trumped-up charges or often without trial. The irony is that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights is in Banjul, the capital city.

There were promises that human rights issues would be “speedily addressed” according to Foreign Minister Ouisainou Darboe and that rejoining the International Criminal Court was high on the agenda. Darboe himself was a political prisoner until his release in December 2016 and has pledged to make the Gambia the “human rights capital of Africa”.

The new president has clearly aligned himself with redressing the problems of the past. In the first signs of direct action, Barrow has ordered a new probe that will investigate the claims of 30 people whose family members reported them dead or missing, Police Inspector General Yankuba Sonko told reporters in Banjul. The police also opened a complaint register so that additional people could file reports.

“The areas we would like Barrow to prioritise in his early days of office are media freedom, security sector reform – the conduct of national intelligence agencies were pretty awful in terms of arbitrary arrests,” Jim Wormington from Human Rights Watch told African Business.

“Finally, it’s important to address the LGBT rhetoric which Jammeh was so famous for.” The ex-president was quoted as saying that he would “cut off the head” of any gay person found in Gambia and told the UN  that LGBT rights were one of the “biggest threats to human existence”.

Early indications that Barrow will take a firmer stand on this contentious issue are doubtful. When questioned by journalists on LGBT rights, the new president said: “Homosexuality is not an issue in Gambia.”

For now, Barrow has a period of grace while he introduces new reforms to the country. He has already shown himself to be an astute negotiator with the EU and welcoming in foreign allies such as the UK’s Boris Johnson.

“By rejoining the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court, Barrow realises that the small country has to seek friends and influences in high places,” said Professor Stephen Chan Professor of International Relations at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies).

“We don’t know to what extent he is going to be a capable president,” he told African Business. “The problem with having one president in power for so very long is that no one else has been able to gain experience in running government. Lifting that weight of repression off people’s shoulders that is enough to guarantee Barrow a honeymoon period.”

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