Crowds of people packed the streets of Gambia’s capital Banjul on Thursday to welcome home the country’s new president, Adama Barrow, who has finally taken power almost two months after he won an election disputed by outgoing dictator Yahya Jammeh.
A human rights expert has warned, however, that the hard work is only just beginning for Barrow — the first new president in 23 years. The challenges he faces include trying to unify a country that is still deeply divided; implementing sweeping law reforms; and overhauling the army and security forces, which, under Jammeh, conducted widespread human rights abuses.
Barrow had been in self-imposed exile in neighboring Senegal for several weeks after Jammeh lost the election in December and refused to step down, despite initially accepting the results. Jammeh finally left the country last weekend and has gone into exile in Equatorial Guinea, but not before allegedly plundering $11.4 million from the national coffers.
Barrow’s special adviser, Mai Ahmad Fatty, told local media in Senegal that Jammeh had made off with the money before he fled. “The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact.”
After stepping off the plane on Thursday, Barrow, accompanied by his two wives and some of his children, was greeted by members of his coalition government as well as members of the military. He was also accompanied by heavily armed troops from Senegal and Nigeria, indicating that tensions remain in the West African country. There are also lingering fears that Jammeh may seek retaliation for his exile.
Speaking to AP during his homecoming parade where huge crowds chanted his name, Barrow said: “I am a happy man today. I think the bad part is finished now.” He also promised to “get the ball rolling” in regards to putting his Cabinet in place. Barrow, who was sworn in as president in the Gambian embassy in Dakar last week, confirmed he will hold an official inauguration ceremony on Feb. 18.
Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s Gambia researcher, told VICE News that she believes Barrow is “very committed to the reforms that Gambia needs,” having spoken to the former businessman last month after his election victory.
“There are so many challenges,” Mahtani said. “It is still a divided country; it is not clear how many people are still loyal to Jammeh.”
Barrow is already mapping out changes. He has vowed to release political prisoners, which Mahtani says is “a really good sign,” and indicated that Jammeh’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court will be reversed.
One of the biggest challenges facing Barrow will be restoring trust in the army and security forces, who carried out multiple human rights abuses under Jammeh’s rule. “There is a huge need to reform the security forces,” Mahtani said. “There was a lot of impunity and lack of accountability during the Jammeh era where some of the human rights abuses were used to foment a climate of fear in Gambia, including arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, forced disappearances — all with very little accountability.”
Barrow has already made his first Cabinet appointment, naming 67-year-old Fatoumata Tambajang as his vice president — though the appointment has not been without controversy. Some have challenged it, pointing out that the Gambian constitution says the president and vice president cannot be over 65.
Another key challenge for Barrow to address is legal reform. “There are incredibly repressive laws in Gambia, particularly around freedom of expression,” Mahtani said. However, there are already indications that people feel more free to express themselves.
Radio stations, which had been silent for the past two months while Jammeh refused to step down, are now back on air and discussing the appointment of Tambajang and the constitutional crisis arising from it.
“Gambians will now be able to hold this government to account for what they are doing and speak freely about it, which was certainly not the case during the Jammeh era, and I think that is a very positive thing,” Mahtani said.
One of Barrow’s initial priorities is to reach out to other countries, and he appears intent on forging strong links with Gambia’s former colonial ruler – the U.K – where he studied for several years.
In an interview conducted in Dakar prior to his departure Thursday, Barrow told International Business Times that he would visit the U.K. soon and would “rejoin the Commonwealth,” adding, “The U.K. was in The Gambia for hundreds of years. We are a former colony and this is why we are an English-speaking country. The history is there, and we have high respect for the U.K. and we want to create a very strong relationship.”