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Gambia and the art of looking forward

Adrian Kriesch
December 5, 2016

Gambia's autocratic leader Yahya Jammeh has been voted out after 22 years in power. DW correspondent Adrian Kriesch reports from a celebrating country where people want to look to the future, yet cannot forget the past.

Gambia neuer Präsident Adama Barrow
Gambia's newly-elected president, Adama BarrowImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Longari

Jaliba Kuyateh has seen a lot in his life. The musician is constantly touring the world with his famous kora. But he's never seen a night like this - certainly not in his native Gambia.

This is days after the unimaginable came to pass. On December 2, the country's electoral commission declared that longtime President Yahya Jammeh had lost the election. Thousands of people flocked to Kutayeh's concert. He played his new song, a hymn to the opposition and change in the country. "I knew the people were in a good mood," says Kutayeh later. "I thought, if I play this song, they'll be so happy they'll freak out." But the storm of enthusiasm was so great that Kutayeh had to pack away his kora for security reasons.

A generation marked by anger and frustration

In recent years, Kutayeh has often had to fear for his life - and not because his concert audiences ran riot. He complains that he was labeled an "opposition musician" - although, he says, that was not true. "Whatever I wanted to do in this time, they made it difficult for me," he says. Critical voices regularly disappeared under President Jammeh, often abducted by a notorious police unit.

Gambia Musiker Jaliba Kuyateh
Jaliba Kuyateh is celebrating Adama Barrow's election victoryImage: DW/A. Kriesch

People celebrated for days when news broke that opposition candidate Adama Barrow had won, and that Jammeh had acknowledged defeat. The celebrations were generally peaceful. But frustration runs deep after 22 years of repression: Once the election result was announced, Jammeh's campaign posters were torn down all over the country within minutes.

Reconciliation, not retaliation

In an interview with DW, President-elect Barrow announced that he intended to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, modeled on South Africa. "As soon as we are in power, there will be investigations," he said. "There will be justice for all." He called on the current government to release political prisoners. "This would be a first step towards reconciliation," he said. "This way they could make an important gesture before they go."

Gambia Geschäftsmann Anthony Tabbal
Businessman Anthony Tabbal is optimistic about the future of GambiaImage: DW/A. Kriesch

Anthony Tabbal is sitting in his restaurant, Green Mamba, on the main tourist street in Kololi, the heart of the Gambian capital, Banjul. He is in good spirits, but when he looks at his smartphone, he gets angry. He is reading the hate texts on social media; the insults and death threats against the president. "These are violent threats - against the president, his ministers, his army. And they still have their weapons," the businessman says, worried. This is precisely the time when people should be looking to the future, he adds.

Hoping for investors and development aid

"Things even seem to be going better here than in the US elections," says Tabbal. "And this in our tiny country, which was governed by a dictator for 22 years with an iron fist." Tabbal is firmly convinced that things will start looking up for Gambia's economy now; that investors will return and development aid will start flowing back into the country. Many companies and non-governmental organizations left after Jammeh's tirades against critics and dissidents. For a long time, Tabbal has been planning to build an apartment hotel right next to his restaurant. Until now, he says, the political situation has scared investors away. Now he is sure he will soon be able to do it.

Musician Jaliba Kutayeh is also optimistic that a peaceful change of government will move his country forward and restore its reputation. On his travels, he always meets people whose immediate association with Gambia is a dictator. "That's very embarrassing for me," says Kutayeh. "But now, after our election decision, I hope we're more likely to get recognition and approval."