He is quiet, understated and until recently unknown, but Adama Barrow — an Arsenal supporter who was once a security guard in London — has become the flag-bearer for a new era of change in The Gambia.
The 51-year-old won an election seven weeks ago and was initially set to become president of The Gambia in a peaceful handover of power this week.
But less than 24 hours before his scheduled inauguration on Thursday, it remained unclear whether force would be needed to help the 51-year-old take office in Banjul.
Barrow’s lack of political baggage endeared him to voters in a December 1 election against the tiny West African country’s longtime leader Yahya Jammeh.
Jammeh initially conceded defeat but days later performed a U-turn—and by late Wednesday, the last day of his official mandate, was clinging to power as African forces massed in neighbouring Senegal ready to oust him.
Barrow—who suffered personal tragedy on Sunday when his eight-year-old son died after being bitten by dogs—has taken refuge in neighbouring Senegal pending his inauguration.
Devout Muslim, football mad
A businessman who owns an estate agency, he was previously employed at The Gambia’s largest property rental firm, and lived in Britain for three and a half years when he was younger.
His time in Britain saw him work as a security guard in London, where he developed a love for Arsenal Football Club.
A husband to two wives and father of five until his son’s death, he is a devout Muslim and self-confessed workaholic, with football one of his few distractions.
“If you are a religious man it always influences you,” he told AFP in an interview.
Burly but soft-spoken, Barrow was thrust into the limelight following the jailing of top officials from the United Democratic Party (UDP) last July.
During the election campaign his face was plastered on car windows, brandished on campaign posters, and printed onto grey T-shirts popular among Gambian youth.
Banjul-based diplomats said his previous lack of a profile may have worked in his favour, allowing him to deliver a fresh message.
As a former economic migrant, Barrow understands the draw of Europe for young, poverty-struck Gambians fleeing in huge numbers to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
“There is a crisis in the Gambia, that’s why everyone is taking the Back Way (migrant route),” he said, mindful that riches seldom await those leaving their homeland.
“You hear the name Europe, you think it’s heaven. It’s never like that,” Barrow said of his country, where 60 percent of the 1.99 million population is graded as living in poverty.
Barrow’s campaign benefited from social media and internet technology, which helped the opposition organise mobile rallies and avoid roadblocks during campaigning.
In a Christmas message, he said Gambians should be free of the threat of violence as “we enter a New Year of hope”, alluding to Jammeh’s stubborn efforts to cling to power.
“I should assume office when the term of office of the incumbent expires… I do not want to preside over a country that is not at peace with itself,” he said.
“I am calling on all peace loving Gambians to… work for a peaceful transfer of executive power, for the first time in our history since independence.”