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Adama Barrow to cling on despite promise to stay only three years

By Marième Soumaré
Posted on Monday, 17 February 2020 08:14

Gambia President Adama Barrow
Gambia President Adama Barrow © Jason Florio/REDUX-REA

Has Adama Barrow developed a taste for power? At his inauguration in early 2017, he promised to stay in office for only three years. He has since changed his mind, much to the displeasure of his former allies.

The attack is blunt, the tone annoyed.

Barrow, when asked by the press about the criticism of a Gambian professor who accused him of lacking the intellectual gravitas necessary to turn the country around, retorted angrily, “Yes, I didn’t go beyond high school, but I made myself. I was brave enough to stand up to Yahya Jammeh. It’s easy for you to criticize me! Whoever challenges me must also ask themselves, ‘Where were you [during the dictatorship], and what have you done for your country?’”

The criticism in August 2018, was the first time the president had been confronted regarding his lack of experience.

When he came to power a year and a half earlier, he conveyed an image of a modest man, almost unknown, but who had succeeded against all odds in restoring democracy in Gambia. After the ruckus made the headlines, Barrow cancelled all press conferences.

Three years jotna!

He has, however, reneged on his electoral promise to leave power before the end of his five-year term. Before he was elected in December 2016 — thanks to the support of seven opposition parties united behind him — he worked as a security guard in the UK.

He returned to Gambia, made a fortune in real estate, and then achieved the impossible: he put an end to the 22 years of Yahya Jammeh’s brutal presidency.

According to the founding charter of the 2016 Coalition, which made him its standard bearer, he was responsible for ensuring a three-year transition period before stepping down and calling for new elections. The three years have passed, and the head of state is still there.

As the anniversary of his investiture approached, on 19 January 2019, popular discontent had grown. “Three years jotna!” (“Three years is enough!”), chanted the crowd in the streets of Banjul, demanding his departure.

The movement was judged “subversive, violent and illegal” by Barrow’s government, and was “forever banned from acting in the territory”. Eight of its leaders have been charged with illegal assembly, rioting, and destruction of public property.

Two radio stations, accused of “threatening the security of Gambia,” were also shut down.

‘We are an open government, but we cannot comment on recent events, which are now a matter for the judiciary,” said Information and Communication Minister Ebrima Sillah.

In Serrekunda, Gambia, on 19 January 2017, after Adama Barrow's swearing-in ceremony.
In Serrekunda, Gambia, on 19 January 2017, after Adama Barrow’s swearing-in ceremony. © Jerome Delay/AP/SIPA

“His reaction was a real surprise. It makes us think of what we voted against in 2016,” said a bitter former ally of the president. Faced with popular pressure, influenced by his entourage, had the man the press liked to call “no-drama Adama” finally lost his temper?

Bridges burnt

Constitutionally, Barrow has every right to continue governing until the 2021 presidential election. And he intends to make the most of it.

Who can stop him? His agreement with the coalition that supported him has not been formally signed or endorsed by the National Assembly.

Admittedly, he had to resign from the United Democratic Party (UDP) when he became the opposition candidate in 2016, but he now has his own formation, the National People’s Party, which he launched at the end of 2019 and whose colours he can wear in the presidential election.

The break with the UDP, however, had been consummated several months earlier. The head of state dismissed the party leader and historical opponent, Oussainou Darboe, from his post as vice-president in March 2019, despite the fact he had released him from prison the day after his victory.

“I really believe that Adama Barrow will give Gambians what they want. He is on a mission for our party and for the opposition coalition. We trust him, he will make a good president,” Oussainou Darboe told us back then. Since he left government, the lawyer has discreetly avoided the media.

The bridges between the former allies have been burnt.

In early 2019, Fatoumata Jallow Tambajang, who preceded Darboe as vice-president, called a meeting between the different parties. She proposed to review the terms of the 2016 agreement and to endorse the extension of the mandate to five years. But the UDP refused to accept.

“We felt that this did not reflect what happened in 2016,” said Almami Fanding Taal, the UDP spokesman. “Although the constitution gives him a five-year term, that’s not the point. This is a political agreement.”

The UDP may have had a majority in the National Assembly, but it was unable to do anything about Barrow’s reversal.

“The formation of the coalition contained the seeds of its own defeat,” said Almami Fanding Taal.

Should Barrow keep his word and resign? It’s a risky gamble: there is no evidence that the UDP will make him its candidate again.

“His relatives influenced him by telling him that the UDP no longer wanted him as president, even if that is not true,” said Taal.

Poor entourage

Critics of Barrow point a finger at those who have the President’s ear — they are the ones who will do him damage.

“Unfortunately, most of his advisers have no administrative experience. He has surrounded himself with the wrong people,” said the former head of Gambian diplomacy, Sidi Sanneh.

Barrow is criticised for keeping the architecture of the Jammeh administration and state structures almost intact.

The main ministries, such as the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are still occupied by people close to the former president. In his current position, Barrow is in a position of strength, which he now seeks to consolidate.

He has told the Senegalese Moustapha Cissé Lô, who acted as mediator in this crisis when he chaired the ECOWAS Parliament until the beginning of February 2019, that he is “open” to renewing dialogue with his opponents.

On the eve of the 2021 elections, Barrow did not forget that a new Constitution was being prepared to replace the one dating from the Jammeh era. Once the text is validated, he will have to submit it to the National Assembly before calling a referendum. This is a project that cannot be carried out without the approval of the UDP.

Under the watchful eye of big brother

Dakar, which played a key role in the fall of Yahya Jammeh at the end of 2016, is following developments closely in Gambia. Moustapha Cissé Lô, president of the organization’s parliament until 3 February, visited Banjul from 23 to 31 January.

He met the main members of the 2016 Coalition, including Oussainou Darboe of the UDP.

He also met with Barrow for more than two hours at the presidential palace. While Barrow raised the possibility of a meeting with his former allies, no formal commitment was made.

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