SEATTLE, Washington — After 22 years of political rule under Yahya Jammeh, a new Gambian president has been elected on the promise of just rule. Optimistic residents of the West African nation hope to move toward a vision of what the President-elect calls “New Gambia”.
Adama Barrow won the election on December 1, 2016, and will officially declare himself president on January 1, 2017. He intends to take office despite Jammeh’s rejection of election results.
A Track Record of Oppression
Jammeh came to power at age 29 after a successful coup in 1994. Prior to this year, the eccentric and ruthless ruler had won four multi-party elections. United Nations officials have long expressed concern about human rights violations from Jammeh’s regime. The most notable case was the murder of Deyda Hydara, editor of an independent newspaper which criticised the Gambian government under Jammeh.
Although Jammeh continually denies involvement, he has made no secret of his distaste for the press. Media suppression tactics used during his presidency include surveillance of and threats against journalists who criticized the government. He also issued multiple threats against gay men in the Gambia over the course of his political career. In 2008, for example, he released a statement that he supported the beheading of gay people.
During a public speech seven years later, he said, “I will slit your throat — if you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it.” Those statements followed the suspension of European Union funding to the Gambia in light of human rights violations. The leader did not curb his remarks even in the face of international intervention.
One of Jammeh’s most alarming decisions came in August 2013 when he stated that all prisoners on death row would be executed immediately. The decision resulted in the deaths of nine people, including a lieutenant who planned to drive Jammeh out of office.
A stay of execution was granted to remaining prisoners in light of intense pressure from the European Union and the African Union. Jammeh made oppression, fear-mongering and suppression the benchmarks of his political career. The nation’s people, particularly the youth, are now excited to usher in a leader who has promised them a new era and a “New Gambia”.
An Unlikely Victor
Barrow entered the political fold as an insurgent. A former property developer and security guard, he went on to lead several opposition parties in a nation that wanted better for its people. While campaigning, he promised to stand for everything Jammeh railed against, like freedom of the press and the creation of an independent judiciary.
As he rose to prominence, his message struck a chord with young people struggling in a stagnant economy. The most recent World Bank data state that 48.4 percent of Gambians live in poverty, and enrollment of primary school-aged children has decreased steadily since 1999.
According to youth activist Mariama Saine, Jammeh even monopolized industries that once supported young Gambians, like industrial and agricultural work. Barrow’s “New Gambia” promises freedom from Jammeh’s legacy of oppression and human rights violations. The newly-minted politician who has never held public office is writing an outsider’s political narrative, and young Gambians see themselves in his story.
The Road Ahead
Because the Gambia has not seen a peaceful transfer of power in Barrow’s lifetime, the uncertainty of this liminal period is the country’s most immediate concern. Although Jammeh initially respected the outcome of the election, he later retracted his statements and contested the results. This outcry raises red flags for the nation’s period of transition.
Beyond that, however, residents are joyful after a long period marred by apprehension and fear. Young voters, who came out in droves this year, have known nothing but Jammeh’s oppression. Their courage stands at the helm of the “New Gambia” mission. Barrow’s success in toppling a relentless regime is now seen as a beacon that, if all goes according to plan, will allow the Gambian people to grow and change with a vision of something better.
– Madeline Distasio