​The Gambia’s future looks brighter after brutal ruler’s poll defeat

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A new president brings the promise of an end to repression and freeing up development aid, frozen because of human rights concerns.

The Gambia’s shock election result, which saw veteran leader Yahya Jammeh defeated after 22 years in power, could mend the West African nation’s ties with Europe, boost its development, and halt an exodus of migrants to the West, analysts said this week.

Jammeh, who has ruled with an iron fist since seizing power in a coup, stunned observers and sparked wild celebrations across The Gambia on Friday when he accepted his surprise election loss to opposition candidate Adama Barrow.

“This is really extraordinary,” said a woman who gave her name as Mariam. “We were never able to celebrate like this.”

“Gambians have decided that I should take the back seat,” Jammeh said on Friday on state television, hours after the election commission declared that Barrow, a virtual unknown six months ago, emerged as winner of the December 1 poll. “You have voted for someone to lead our country. This is our country, and I wish you all the best.”

Barrow obtained 263 515 votes, against Jammeh’s 212 099, according to the election commission.

In the one-round election, each candidate was represented by a metal drum in which voters cast a glass marble.

Internet services were restored on Friday after being blocked nationwide for almost two days.

Barrow took over as head of the United Democratic Party after its founder, Ousainou Darboe, was sentenced to three years in jail in July for organising a rare protest march. Barrow, 51, was backed by seven other opposition parties.

The Gambia, one of Africa’s poorest and smallest nations with a population of 1.9-million, has had tens of millions of euros in aid from the European Union blocked in recent years because of concerns over human rights violations during Jammeh’s rule.

Criticised by human rights groups for brutally stifling dissent, Jammeh had landslide victories in four previous polls. Jammeh won 72% of the votes in 2011.

Bellicose statements and claims of extraordinary powers were hallmarks of his leadership style: he said he could cure HIV and infertility and proclaimed himself a doctor as well as a professor.

Jammeh’s defeat and the promises of president-elect Barrow to revive the economy, end rights abuses and establish democracy represent a watershed moment for The Gambia and its development, according to academics, aid agencies and diplomatic sources.

“The Jammeh administration had increasingly reduced its international development options,” said Alex Vines of London-based think-tank Chatham House, adding that recent efforts to attract funding from Gulf countries had proved unsuccessful.

Last year Jammeh declared the formerly secular country an Islamic republic in an attempt to win favour with donors from the Middle East as relations with the West soured.

“The new government will attract attention from Brussels ... Europe will want to try and reduce the number of Gambians seeking to migrate there and will find it easier post-Jammeh to engage with The Gambia,” said Vines.

More than 10 000 Gambians have arrived in Italy by sea this year, having crossed the Sahara and the Mediterranean, making them more likely than any other Africans to take what is known locally as “the back way”, EU data shows.

“The excitement of having a new government after so many years may keep people from leaving The Gambia, at least for a while,” said Richard Danziger, regional director of the International Organisation for Migration.

“But unless we see more job creation or other opportunities there is no reason for there to be a dramatic change in migration patterns,” he added.

The Gambia, which exports peanuts and rosewood, is one of Africa’s slowest- growing economies, the International Monetary Fund said. In recent years, fears of Ebola in the region had kept tourists away and drought cut agricultural output.

“The economy is in dire straits but the EU and the United Nations are there to help,” said a Western diplomat in the capital, Banjul.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said last week that their institutions were ready to support the country.

“With the departure of Jammeh, the problems with funding should disappear,” the diplomat added, citing aid that was frozen by the EU.

Aid agencies said they hoped Barrow’s victory would spur donors to invest in The Gambia and tackle issues ranging from high rates of malnutrition to the country’s vulnerability to rising sea levels.

Nearly one in 10 Gambians do not have enough to eat, said the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“The international community should not wait to be contacted but rather start engaging the new government,” said Carla Fajardo, country representative of the Catholic Relief Services.

While celebrations continue on the streets of Banjul, many Gambians say that boosting development and stemming the flow of illegal migration will be no easy task for Barrow’s government.

“It [the election] does not mean all the Gambians will find work,” said Momodou Jawara, whose sister, once a member of The Gambia’s national football team, drowned in October while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. “Change takes time.”

The Gambia is isolated by its geographical location as an English-speaking sliver of a country surrounded on three sides by French-speaking Senegal.

Jammeh’s haphazard criticism of regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union alienated the nation further.

A former security guard, Barrow was active in local politics but never held public office. He earned an income from real estate before he announced his intention to run for president. During his campaign, he pledged to appoint a transitional government.

Jammeh undertook to vacate his office by January, Barrow told reporters on Saturday after meeting with coalition partners.

“My commitment is to become the president for all Gambians,” Barrow said. “I thank all Gambians for massively voting for me.”

Barrow said he will prioritise job creation in a country where thousands of young people are trying to emigrate each year. He will also restore ties with the international community, he said. — Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters Foundation

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