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Gambia: 'Press freedom has returned'

Omar Wally
July 27, 2017

Gambian President Adama Barrow has hinted at a possible trial of former leader Yahya Jammeh, currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Gambia' Präsident Adama Barrow during a press conference in Banjul
Image: Reuters/T. Gouegnon

In an exclusive interview with DW, Barrow said the Gambian people are longing for justice for all crimes committed under Jammeh's 22-year rule. Jammeh ruled the country with an iron fist and clamped down on dissent, as well as the media. Six months after his election, Barrow said media freedoms have been restored in the whole country, but it will take many years to rebuild the Gambia.

DW: You have been in office for six months now and some Gambians say you lack a clear strategy for the country. How do you respond to those allegations?

Adama Barrow: Those are my critics. But seriously, I think it has not been an easy journey. It was challenging, but we have made progress. Because we inherited a government with the economy at its lowest, and a dictatorship government, it will take time.

Can you outline some of the progress you have made in the six months?

We have made a lot of progress. First of all, food prices have gone down, and the price of fuel today is just like it was in 2011. So we have reduced the price of basic commodities. And we were able to get budget support from development partners and the cargoes at the depot have increased.

You promised to reform the security sector, but your government is being accused of sidelining the armed forces. What do you have to say to such accusations?

We are not sidelining the armed forces.  A lot of soldiers were wrongly dismissed and we have reinstated most of them. A lot more were languishing in prisons and we have had them released. So I think we have made a lot of progress in that area.

The political turmoil in the country forced many young people to flee the country and Gambians are among the many Africans who try to cross the Mediterranean Sea. How is your government going to deal with this issue?

Gambian migration became a big problem because they were frustrated and there was no hope. In recent days, many Gambians have taken the bold decision to voluntarily return home because there's hope for the country.

What role is the Gambian diaspora playing in rebuilding the country?

The Gambian diaspora is very important to this country. Some of them have returned, while others have taken up jobs within the government structures. There are some who are acting as a think-tank and are contributing from outside. So the diaspora is part of the rebuilding process.

What are the main problems inherited from the Jammeh era that you are still grappling with?

There are a lot of problems that we will continue to struggle with because of the influence of Yahya Jammeh. Even with the new-found democracy, people are abusing it. The way the finances were handled here was so bad, so we have to compromise a lot and reduce on government expenditure.

What about Jammeh himself? Will he be left to live out his life in exile or do you still consider him a threat to your government?

I don't see him as a threat, but one thing is fundamental. We want justice for all and everybody is under the law, including myself and Jammeh. We have set up several commissions of inquiry to look into Jammeh's affairs while he was president. So we have to wait for the commissions to finish their work and then decide our next move for Jammeh. But I believe that the people who were victimized under his rule will have justice.

Over 300 Jammeh loyalists are believed to be regrouping in neighboring Mauritania and are planning to destabilize the Gambia. Are you worried about that?

According to our intelligence in Mauritania, we haven't been able to get those facts. As far as we are concerned, I think this is just news and not real.

Under Jammeh's regime, the Gambia was isolated for many years. How do you intend to win back the trust of the international community?

Everybody is coming back to the Gambia. If you go to the airport, the traffic is very high. The United Nations, the African Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are all coming back to Gambia. I think Gambia has made progress in that area and my finance minister has worked very hard for the international community to support the government.

How high is press freedom on your list of priorities?

The press is already free. And at the moment all radios, newspapers are all free. It's at the top of our priority list. We will reverse those media laws and in practice we are already doing it. That's the most important thing.

Have you been able to find a solution to the border land dispute in Casamance - between Gambia and Senegal? 

We cannot find a solution to Casamance, but we have the political will to be part of the process helping to bring peace to Casamance. It's in the interest of both Gambia and Senegal to bring back peace in that area. We were contacted by a priest from Italy to be part of the process and we are very willing to restore peace in Casamance.

What advice do you give the Gambian people who are abusing the current democracy that they enjoy?

We advise Gambians to be law-abiding citizens. Democracy doesn't mean you do and say whatever you want. We have to respect the rule of law and with that everybody will live in peace.

Will you adhere to the constitutional provision of a five-year presidential term or the coalition's agreement of three years?

Well, I think I have repeated this so many times. The most important thing is to serve the Gambian people and everything is in their hands.

What is your final message to all Gambians, especially those in the diaspora?

My final message to the Gambians in the diaspora is that we want them to come back home and contribute to nation building and also exercise a bit of patience. Rome was not built in one day. It will take time, but I think we are on the right track. We are all committed to this change and we want the Gambian people to realize and feel the change. We are united and that's why we were able to remove Jammeh. If we remain united then this country will progress.

Adama Barrow has been president of the Gambia since January 2017

Interview: Omar Wally