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The massive task of rebuilding The Gambia

Daniel Pelz
February 17, 2017

Adama Barrow is going to be officially sworn in as The Gambia's new president on Saturday. The challenges awaiting Yahya Jammeh's successor include restoring an ailing economy and cementing democratic governance.

Gambia's new President Adama Barrow
Image: picture alliance/abaca/X.Olleros

It is a difficult, unenviable job that awaits him. This Saturday, Adama Barrow officially takes up the reins as the new president of The Gambia. That in itself is something of a sensation. After longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh suffered a surprise election defeat in December 2016, he refused - after some deliberation - to accept the result. Barrow, the winner of the election, was sworn in provisionally in neighboring Senegal.  Jammeh went into exile in January following a military intervention in The Gambia by forces from the regional bloc ECOWAS.

Barrow promised at the end of January to "completely overhaul" The Gambia's political system. That will not be easy. "He will have to reunite the country," Peter Penar, an expert on The Gambia at Michigan State University in the United States, told DW. "He comes in, in a very divided climate, a climate in which the people that he has to work with, the current parliament, is of the former ruling party, the Alliance of Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, APRC."

Ex-president Jammeh leaving Gambia by plane
Seven weeks after his surprise electoral defeat Jahya Jammeh left The Gambia and went into exileImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Delay

There are 48 deputies in The Gambia's parliament and 43 support the APRC. Elections for a new parliament were supposed to take place in April although in the wake of the protracted crisis in January over Jammeh's departure, it is far from clear whether they will go ahead.

Legislative elections, then reforms

Barrow must ensure that the legislative elections are held as soon as possible. "They are the gateway to many of the other political adjustments he may want to make in terms of human rights, in terms of the constitution," Penar said.

Barrow cannot overhaul the country without a parliamentary majority. This is, however, a task that needs to be tackled urgently. Jammeh's administration was accused of numerous human rights violations. Members of the opposition disappeared without a trace and journalists critical of Jammeh's government were arrested. The Gambian secret service is alleged to have tortured opponents of the regime with electric shocks and waterboarding.

It is doubtful whether Jammeh loyalists in the state apparatus will support Barrow's reforms. Last Friday one of Jammeh's former bodyguards was arrested in a mosque just as Barrow was about to take part in prayers. The former bodyguard was carrying a loaded gun.

Gambia Präsidentschaftswahl
The election of Adama Barrow as the new president of The Gambia is viewed as a fillip for West African democracy Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Barrow enjoys the backing of neighboring states. ECOWAS is expected to remain in The Gambia for at least three months. "After the conflict, they stayed with troops to secure the capital," Penar said. "That was a good move because it provided some stability. But these troops may be withdrawn and that leaves the question what the [Jammeh] loyalists will do if the security support is not present."

The Gambia needs funds

In the foreign policy arena, Barrow will have to start picking up the pieces following the damage inflicted by the previous regime. Jammeh fell out with the European Union and it froze aid to the country in 2014. Under his rule, The Gambia also pulled out of the Commonwealth and announced its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Barrow has already rescinded the latter decision and expressed an interest in rejoining the Commonwealth.

Barrow is attaching high priority to good relations with western donors. He admitted last week that Gambia's economy was "essentially bankrupt." State-run companies were steeped in debt and performing poorly. Many Gambians had fled abroad to escape poverty and Jammeh's dictatorship. Viewed as a proportion of their country's population, Gambians make up the biggest group of migrants attempting the hazardous Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

Infografik Karte  Gambia
Apart from its coastline, The Gambia is surrounded by Senegal on all sides

"We need more jobs, more opportunities to generate income, if we are to halt the flow of migrants," said The Gambia's new Trade Minister Isatou Touray.

Despite the challenges, the new government can already claim to have made progress. After a visit to The Gambia, EU commissioner for international cooperation and development, Neven Mimica, promised the country a 75 million euro ($80 million) aid package. A further 150 milion euros is expected to follow.