Gambia’s President Barrow chooses mandate over constituents
Gambia's President Adama Barrow was sworn in as head of state on 19 January 2017, for a five-year term, but he has since reneged on his promise to resign after three years. Was this mandate all for nothing?
Barrow seems to prefer his term of office over his constituents. After assuring them he would serve a “transitional term” (his own words) of three years rather than the five allowed by the Gambian constitution, Yahya Jammeh’s successor has reversed his decision. He will serve five years as president. That is, if he is not re-elected for a second term in 2021.
Such respect for the letter of the constitution — rare in the West African sub-region — make it all the more suspect. If it is respected, the spirit of Gambian republican institutions has been perverted. Barrow, a polygamist (two wives), a fan of Arsenal — whose jersey he sometimes wears in photos posted on social networks — is actually president by accident.
He is certainly a president in transition, in this small country of two million inhabitants, where the cards were reshuffled for one purpose: to oust Jammeh.
Ousseinou Darboe, the president of the main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), had been in prison since April 2016. His party formed a coalition with seven other opposition parties and chose Barrow as a candidate.
No one was betting much on this chubby challenger, a former supermarket security guard in the UK, up against Jammeh, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since his putsch in 1994, and who was then seeking a fifth term.
However, on 2 December 2016, the Gambian electoral commission declared Barrow the winner of the one-round election, with 45.54% (263,515 votes) against Jammeh, who received 36.6% (212,099 votes). It was a surprise to everyone, including the international community, which was used to Jammeh’s bloodshed, his self-glorification as a “dictator of progress” and his antics as president and “caretaker” of HIV patients.
The surprise result cannot be blamed on the unusual ballot system, in which people voted with marbles placed in canisters in the candidates’ colours. Still, Jammeh initially admitted defeat but reconsidered his position the following day. Barrow was installed at the end of January 2017, surrounded by columns of Economic Community of West African States soldiers, operated by his powerful Senegalese neighbour.
Between January 2017 and January 2020, what was achieved? Not much. The only big breakthrough was Barrow presenting the people with a fait accompli that he will complete his five-year term. In mid-December and early January, demonstrations were held amid shouts of, “Three years Jotna!”. (“Three years, it’s time!”, a mixture of English and Wolof).
On Sunday 12 January, a counter-demonstration of the “Barrow for five years” movement, was instigated by the Nation’s People Party, the political formation created by the current president, long since expelled from the UDP.
During these three years, the only thing Barrow made work was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a cover-up whose sole objective seemed to be to blame all the evils (past and present) of Gambia and its socio-economic stagnation on the Jammeh regime.
Inflation is rampant and the Gambian currency, the dalasi, is worthless. In the current context of the introduction of the Eco, the West African currency scheduled for July, we will not hear from Gambia. The dalasi was still justified, to some extent, during the operations of the smuggling economy that the Gambia promoted, to the detriment of landlocked Senegal.
Since the Farafenni bridge linking the two countries was opened, this economy of re-exporting goods to Senegal has not prospered. The Barrow government is devoting larger shares of its budget to defence, security, intelligence and foreign affairs, all at the expense of the health and education sectors.
Last August, a US State Department report singled out the Gambian president for his extra-budgetary spending on the military and intelligence, “without supervision or audit”. Barrow has been travelling all the time, with no tangible results so far in terms of attracting investment into the country.
Without a direction, post-Jammeh Gambia is certainly not what the country’s youth dreamed about. Tens of thousands of young Gambians have left the country in the last three years — spurred on by a youth unemployment rate of 40% — and lured by the European mirage.
Some left on board makeshift boats, one of which was shipwrecked on 4 December off the coast of Mauritania (62 drowned and 192 were rescued by the Mauritanian coastguard).
After voting with marbles, Gambians now vote, more and more, with their feet to leave. This is an infallible barometer of the failure of the imperial Barrow regime.