Rise and Fall of Adama Barrow in Gambia

Photo source: SBC News

 By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

T here were protests in Gambia when President Adama Barrow refused to step down in December 2019 after three years, as he didn't hold on to his promise. It is because Barrow had changed the rules within his coalition. But, Gambians believed in a legality versus moral debate. Thus, the people had taken to the streets, but the president repudiated that he ought to serve a full five years in office, as per the constitutional guidelines. It led to a new grassroots Gambian movement called ‘Three Years Jotna’, which means ‘enough’ in the local Wolof language. 


As a response, hundreds of protestors had stormed into police barricades, and chanted that they planned to oust Barrow. In many protests, the attendance was in thousands. With the result, the government had decided to ban Three Years Jotna, and had several of its executive members imprisoned. Gambian officials called the political advocacy group ‘a subversive, violent, and illegal movement’, and suspended two of its radio stations during demonstrations. The police had charged the protestors with batons, used tear gas, leaving dozens injured, and detained one hundred thirty persons including journalists, and radio station heads.


The Committee to Protect Journalists had reassured that it was investigating reports of journalists being arrested and assaulted, along with the radio shutdowns. The group no longer wanted the era of dictator Yahya Jammeh and appealed to authorities on Twitter that it must protect press freedom & the public's right to information.


‘The crackdown on protesters had alarming echoes of Gambia's brutal past,’ Marta Colomer said, a regional director with Amnesty International. ‘There have been some significant improvements in the country's human rights record since President Adama Barrow came to power, but the use of excessive force by security forces to disperse protesters risks fueling tensions and steering Gambia back to dark days of repression.’


Fatou Jagne Senghore, regional director of Article 19 West Africa, had believed that president should had called for an independent investigation, as to why the protests happened, in order to prevent any future crackdowns. He also rebuked the government on mass arrests, and added that people had the right to express their opinions. 


Infact, Gambia’s constitution guarantees the right to protests, and freedom of speech, expression, and association. It also guarantees the freedom and independence of the media. In addition, Gambia has explicitly accepted human rights obligations through the international and regional human rights treaties, which it has signed, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 


In the past, too, Gambia had been notorious for crushing dissent. The massacre of April 2000 had happened, when firefighters killed a student, and police officers raped a schoolgirl. The response had been a brutal crackdown, much like recent times.


Before the 2019 crackdown, thousands of protestors had demanded former president Yahya Jammeh to be allowed to return to Gambia from exile in Equatorial Guinea. The former president had fled there in January 2017, during the constitutional crises: after ECOWAS failed to convince Jammeh of stepping down, a coalition of military forces from Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana invaded Gambia to urge him to renounce power. After two days of intervention, he stepped down, despite having support from his chief of defense staff, who had assured ‘unflinching loyalty and support of Gambian Armed Forces’, and trying to hold power through a ninety-day emergency. The constitutional crises in 2016-2017 had received international reactions. He was condemned not only by United States and Senegal, but also from the UNSC. United Nations had called for sanctions, if Jammeh didn’t step down.


As the new President Adama Barrow was inaugurated, people had a flicker of hope, as he promised to raise the standard of living, bring about democratic reform, and set up a truth and reconciliation commission to heal an already divided nation. Barrow had first taken oath in Senegal in January 2017, as Jammeh had refused to cede power, before being sworn in the next month. Before entering politics, he worked as a security guard in London, while in his studies, and then became a property tycoon on his return to Gambia.


In his foreign policy, Jammeh pursued a more conciliatory strategy than his predecessor, to avoid confrontations with the international community, but it never resonated well with an average Gambian. The country had dominated the international headlines when it brought a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice, accusing it of genocide against Rohingya Muslims.


On the domestic front, the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission, which was set up to investigate Jammeh era human rights abuses, in his twenty two year rule, had won particular praise, though the victims criticised the release of some alleged perpetrators.  


But, the inflation is going off the roof, water and electricity is becoming expensive, and there are lots of blackouts in cities. As unemployment is also soaring upto forty percent, people have left the west African country to Europe and beyond. The hardships have also made public services inadequate, while the government tries to scout for investments into defense, foreign affairs, health and education.


In August 2019, Gambia was flanked by US government for its fiscal transparency in a report, which said that 'the government had off-budget accounts supporting military and intelligence spending that were not subject to adequate oversight or audit’.


Barrow’s own transparency had also been called into question. Some see his international travels as taking advantage of the country’s official allowances. He had also failed to disclose the value of gifts received, and is also lambasted for playing highly personalised politics, after firing three vice presidents in his tenure. The ruling president is accused of not leading a stable political party as well.


In terms of the political space Barrow created, it is very divided and the coalition had started to disintegrate in 2017. Although, in 2020, he launched a new political front, National People's Party but refused to be it's flag bearer. The party formation may have been an attempt to institutionalise his political interests and cement his position as a leader. 

However, over the years, the political ambiance in Gambia has been dominated by claims and counterclaims, leading to intense rivalry within political party leaders, with regard to the workings of the president.


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