Out With The Old

So it seems long time ruler Yayha Jammeh has finally left The Gambia and the new President, Adama Barrow can return. He has been staying in Senegal for his own safety and was sworn in at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar on Thursday as at that stage Jammeh still refused to cede power.

Following the expiry of Jammeh’s mandate at midnight on Wednesday, and in accordance with the ECOWAS ultimatum, Senegalese troops apparently crossed the border into The Gambia on Thursday prepared to remove him by force if necessary, but their advance was halted before they reached Banjul as further attempts were made by President Abdul Aziz of Mauritania and President Alpha Conde of Guinea to negotiate a peaceful solution to the impasse. A deadline of midday on Friday, later extended to 4pm was given for Jammeh to leave State House, but this second deadline expired as talks continued into the evening. Just before 7pm there were reports (apparently from a source close to President Barrow) that Jammeh had agreed to step down and leave the country, but for a while this was unconfirmed until, as President Aziz left to return to Mauritania, he told a reporter at the airport that an agreement had been reached and that Jammeh would leave “as soon as conditions are met”. No further details of the agreement have been released, but it is expected that amongst other conditions he would be seeking to retain his wealth and be given amnesty protecting him from prosecution for crimes carried out under his rule.

Much later that evening a speech by Jammeh was broadcast on state television announcing that he was relinquishing power, and presenting himself as a patriot who was considering only the lives of the Gambian people.

“As a Muslim and a patriot, I believe it is not necessary that a single drop of blood be shed…… I promise…. that all the issues we currently face will be resolved peacefully. I am indeed thankful to Allah…., that up till now not even a single casualty has been registered. I believe in the importance of dialogue and in the capacity of Africans to resolve among themselves all the challenges on the way towards democracy, economic and social development. It is as a result of this that I have decided today, in good conscience, to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation with infinite gratitude to all Gambians….and friends of the Gambia who have supported me for 22 years in the building of a modern Gambia…….My decision today was not dictated by anything else but by the supreme interests of you the Gambian people and our dear country. I implore (you) all to put the supreme interests of our nation the Gambia above all partisan interests and endeavour working together as one nation to continue to preserve the highly cherished achievements of the country, its sovereignty, peace, stability and integrity, as well as the economic achievements realised during these years.”

The following day a Mauritanian aircraft landed at Banjul ready to take President Conde and ex President Jammeh out of the Gambia. Some Gambians I spoke to still couldn’t believe it would really happen, apparently believing that even at this late hour their mercurial ex President might change his mind again. However his former Chief of Defence Staff had by now pledged allegiance to President Barrow (again!), along with the Inspector General of Police and it must have been clear to Jammeh that without the support of the security forces, and faced with external pressure from ECOWAS, he had no alternative, so finally around 9pm on Saturday, after another day of “will he/won’t he?” the former President boarded the aircraft and flew out of The Gambia for the last time, believed to be heading for exile in Equatorial Guinea (which coincidentally is also ruled by an authoritarian President with a record of human rights abuses, and crucially is not a member of the International Criminal Court).

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For President Barrow and his new administration, the next few months will be a testing time. One of the main challenges facing him will be managing the expectations of the Gambian people, some of whom will look for immediate change and think that their lives will quickly improve. Many civil servants are on low wages and as a result spend much of their time attending workshops in order to gain their daily “sitting allowance” rather than doing productive work. I have heard some discussing the possibility of long overdue pay rises but they don’t seem to realise that there is very little in the government coffers and that they may even be completely empty after Jammeh’s departure. During his rule it was difficult to define what was his own and what belonged to the State – when grants were made to communities or organisations, or when infrastructure was improved, this was invariably presented as a gift from the President – and perhaps as a result of this blurring of the line between personal and government property it seems that his own wealth now considerably exceeds that of the country he used to rule. I have heard several tales of him seizing property or land on the valuable coastal strip and claiming it as his own, on more than one occasion sending in troops to take possession and it may now be difficult to prove or disprove what he has acquired legally. Ten days before he agreed to leave the country I heard rumours of him withdrawing millions of dalasi from the Central Bank, and even in the hours immediately before his departure he was reported to have sent staff to conduct an inventory of “his” vehicles and farm livestock. So Gambians may be in for a shock when they find there is no money in the kitty, even if the new government is able to repossess some of the wealth he claims.

Meanwhile a new Cabinet must be appointed and an administration formed based on experience, competence and merit, rather than nepotism, or tribalism. The military, for so long tools of an authoritarian President, need to be restructured and retrained as servants of the State, and so for the time being in view of their possible divided loyalties it will be necessary for ECOWAS troops to remain in the Gambia to ensure peace and security. It will be an uncomfortable time for some, particularly those who were part of Jammeh’s regime, but this is not a time to settle scores as all will need to work together in a spirit of reconciliation to rebuild The Gambia. The rule of law must be re-established, those held without trial should be released, and the judicial system must be strengthened and made clearly independent of the executive machinery.

Last month when presenting the 2017 budget, the Finance Minister revealed that revenue from foreign governments and multinational organisations (which has been reducing for some years) had fallen by half in 2016 – probably because donors were concerned about the quality of Gambia’s fiscal management, and also because two major donors (Taiwan and the Commonwealth) had recently been alienated by President Jammeh. According to World Bank and IMF figures, The Gambia is the third most indebted country in sub Saharan Africa with about 50% of government revenue going to pay interest on existing loans – public debt for 2015 was estimated as 107.6% of GDP.  A priority for the new government is to begin dialogue with the international community seeking increased financial support from outside donors to plug any immediate shortfall in revenue so that further loans can be minimised and revenue invested instead in developing the economy. Growth in agricultural production and tourism which are probably the two most important sectors of the economy needs to be encouraged, and ways must be found to increase employment, particularly among the youth, although this can only happen with better education to give them marketable skills. Many Gambians receive remittances from friends and relatives in the Diaspora to fund household expenses and perhaps with the current euphoria this will now increase, but nevertheless it is also essential to maximise government revenue by improving the system of tax collection and fighting waste and corruption in the administration.

At the same time of course President Barrow must also placate and gain the support of those who previously supported his predecessor,……and maintain the unity of the former opposition parties now in government.

I wish him the very best of luck.

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