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The Gambia: Protesters want President Barrow out

December 16, 2019

Adama Barrow reneged on a promise to step down as president after three years and not five. The constitution puts him on fairly firm ground but citizens of post-dictatorship Gambia are determined to hold him to his word.

Adama Barrow  waves from a car
Image: Reuters/T. Gouegnon

Gambians protest over President Barrow's decision to renege on his promise and govern for longer than three years. 

The public backlash that Barrow is facing for failing to adhere to a memorandum of understanding by the coalition of parties that secured him the top job spilled out on the streets of Banjul on 16 December 2019. Not long ago, speaking out against a president was dangerous business in The Gambia. Yet today many are determined to assert their right to hold Barrow accountable. 

The Gambia was thrown into a constitutional crisis in December 2016 after Barrow unexpectedly defeated Yahya Jammeh in presidential elections but the long-term strong man leader refused to step down. The dispute prompted the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with the support of the United Nations, to prepare for a military intervention.

Barrow and the coalition of several political parties and civil society groups for which he had stood as an independent candidate made a deal to end the crisis, however, and on January 19, 2017, Barrow, with little political experience, was sworn in as president in neighboring Senegal. Days later, Jammeh fled into exile and Barrow returned home.

Read more: Gambian president-elect calls for calm, demands predecessor accept election loss 

'Changing the rules'

That coalition deal and Barrow's refusal to adhere to its provision that he would serve three years as a transitional president before elections and not five years as afforded a president has led to a swelling civil backlash.

"The main concern is that Barrow is perceived to be changing the rules from within his coalition," says Peter Penar, director of the Leaders of Africa institute and visiting assistant professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

"The present constitution of The Gambia allows duly elected presidents to serve out their full term. Barrow emphasizes this fact and constitutionally he is on fairly firm ground."

As the three-year deadline drew near and the legality versus morality debate over Barrow's tenure deal gained traction, a new grassroots movement dawned: 'Three years jotna' which translates to 'three years are up.'

"The premise of 'Three years jotna' is based on a promise made by then candidate Adama Barrow. It is of a moral rather than legal premise," says Nyang Njie, an independent Banjul-based economist and political blogger. "The people behind 'Three years jotna' are saying that politicians in the new Gambia must be held to account."

A handwritten letter to Barrow, in which the movement calls on him to leave office on 19 January, is to be handed over to authorities in Banjul at the 16 December protest.   

A group of young women in hijab| Amtsübernahme & Einweihungszeremonie in Bakau
The process of drafting a new constitution for The Gambia has included debate around religion and marriageImage: Reuters/T. Gouegnon

A good president gone bad?

Njie believes that citizens in the post-dictatorship country are starting to assert their right to express divergent views without state interference. Dissent, let alone protest, was violently crushed during the Jammeh era. The Gambian student massacre of April 2000 arose after firefighters killed a student and a police officers rape of a schoolgirl sparked protests. (In both cases the government responded with a crackdown on the protesters).

"On social media there is much talk about a good president gone bad. This is certainly accurate," says Penar. Many Gambians had high expectations when Barrow came to office. "The post-Jammeh agenda was and is still long." The truth about human rights abuses and corruption under Jammeh needed to be uncovered; political prisoners needed to be rehabilitated, the economy had to be put on track.

"In many ways Barrow has made good on several promises. In particular, the truth commission has been educational and the economy is growing fairly well."

There are some concerns over The Gambia's high debt and a lack of transparency surrounding the country's financial practices, according to Penar. "Another important consideration is Barrow's apparent interest in centralizing power in the midst of a fluid and fragmented political party system."

Yahya Jammeh 2006
Supporters of Yahya Jammeh have been calling for the former dictator's returnImage: picture-alliance/AP/Rebecca Blackwell

Personalized politics

Political analysts point to the three vice presidents Barrow has had and defections from other parties to his faction and the fragmented political landscape this has created. Barrow fired vice president Ousainou Darboe, who heads the United Democratic Party, the same party he quit in order to contest the 2016 election as an independent candidate for the coalition.

"The critical point is that politics is taking on a personalized character," says Penar.

The Jammeh era was characterized by personalized politics. Barrow is seen to have invested very little in building a stable political party or in making the process of party-building in The Gambia easy. An Afrobarometer survey in 2018 showed, however, that 54% of Gambians trust their president — a high reservoir of support by African standards.

The question over Barrow's tenure left him "compelled to engage in politics, rhetoric and divisive activities" rather than development and reforms, says Nyima Camara, a political science lecture at the University of The Gambia. "The political space is very divided since the coalition started to disintegrate in 2017. The environment has been dominated by claims and counterclaims and intense rivalry among political party leaders with regard to the president."

Read more: Gambia: coping with dictatorship's legacy

Edward Signateh and Sana Sabally, who organized the 1994 coup and then fell out, testifying in front of the truth and reconciliation commission.
The Gambia's truth and reconciliation commission has heard harrowing testimonies about atrocities under the Jammeh dictatorship and by the ex-leader himselfImage: TRRC

New culture of protest

Gambians don't know yet what will ultimately happen. What has become apparent is that civil society is gaining strength, but not without teething problems. "Huge momentum gathered when 'Three years jotna' came out first but it seems as though their influence is dwindling a little. They are beginning to lose ground and divisions have emerged among them," says Camara.

Many Gambians have followed the movement with deep skepticism. That the movement is being led by relatively unknown ordinary citizens without political or social clout is a problem for some of them. There is also concern that if Barrow were to step down after three years, a dangerous power vacuum would arise in period until elections are due.

Barrow's die-hard supporters simply dismiss the 'Three years jotna' movement. "The average Gambian doesn't vote on a rational, issue-driven proposition package or program but on sentiment of tribal affinity, social orientation or financial inducement," says the Banjul-based blogger Nyang Njie.

For now, 'Three years jotna' is at the forefront of the grassroots groundswell the president is facing. Ahead of the protest, its supporters complained over the desolate strip of land between the capital's Denton Bridge and Sting corner that was mapped out in the permit issued just six days in advance. There is no fear of repercussions in the vein of the Jammeh era, but the culture of protest is still very new to Gambians, says Njie.

"The majority of Gambians are not afraid that when they go out (to protest) something will happen to them but, I think, it's more of being ashamed of being part of this," says Njie. He believes it's a question of reeducation, creating awareness and reorienting Gambians to understand that there is nothing wrong with protesting and there is nothing wrong with raising your voice, and there is nothing wrong with advocating for your beliefs and values."

Michael Oti and Omar Wally contributed to this article.