Cover story: New president Adama Barrow finally took office on 18 February. He has quickly been acquainted with a daunting in-tray: a deeply persecuted people demanding full participation in the running of their lives. It has not helped that the coffers were emptied by the exiled ex-president, and public debt stands at over $1 billion. Sheriff Bojang Jr reviews the new administration’s to-do list.
On Saturday 18 February, tens of thousands of Gambians packed into the Independence Stadium in Bakau, near Banjul to witness the inauguration of President Barrow, an event which coincided with the country’s 52nd independence anniversary. The crowd waved the Gambian flag and sang songs to celebrate the new government. Many of them had queued through the night to get in.
Barrow was forced to take his first oath of office at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal where he had stayed for a few weeks amid rising tensions in the aftermath of the 1 December elections.
In the late hours of Saturday 21 January, Yahya Jammeh was flown out of The Gambia to exile in Equatorial Guinea, bringing to an end a political deadlock engineered by his refusal to accept defeat. Within minutes of his departure, thousands of people, embracing spontaneously as tears flowed freely, gathered outside the airport. Soon the air was filled with chants of ‘The Gambia has decided!’ and ‘Down with the dictator!’.
Jammeh’s exit, forced by West African regional authority ECOWAS’s threat to oust him if he failed to step down, came as a huge relief for hundreds of thousands of Gambians. Under his 22-year-rule, The Gambia lost its reputation as one of Africa’s success stories for human rights and the rule of law. The smiling coast became the sad and dangerous coast, with a roof of insecurity hanging over the heads of the citizens. Heavy-handedness became the order of the day and dissent was heavily crushed. Journalists and political opponents were often arrested, illegally detained and tortured. Some lost their lives in the process and many others fled into exile. The Gambia became a police state where neighbours turned each other into state informants, where even taxi drivers were suspected of being spies and where people only referred to Jammeh using coded nicknames.
For Gambians on the street celebrating Adama Barrow’s victory and Jammeh’s exit, this was a celebration of freedom: freedom, principally, from the fear of persecution. And in this new dawn there are big hopes and expectations.
Rescuing the ‘virtually bankrupt’ economy
On Monday 21 February, the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, Amadou Sanneh held his first press briefing in Banjul to reveal the “gravity of theft and corruption” under the Jammeh administration.
The Total Debt stock for The Gambia currently stood at 48.3 billion Gambian dalasis (about $1.1 billion), he told the press.
“The debt comprises D20.3 billion external and D28 billion domestic. The domestic debt increases from 54% to 67% of GDP from 2015 to 2016 respectively, compared with a marginal increase of the external debt [at] 46% to 48% of GDP from 2015 to 2016 respectively.”
The minister also gave a long list of ways in which the ex-president had diverted public funds into his personal accounts. Mai Ahmed Fatty, President Barrow’s special adviser (now the Interior Minister) has hinted that after 22 years in power, Jammeh left the Gambian economy in tatters. He told journalists that the ex-leader stole approximately $11m on his departure from the country.
According to the African Development Bank’s 2016 Economic Outlook, The Gambia’s large fiscal imbalances were caused by persistent policy slippages in recent years and financial difficulties in public enterprises. “Higher than budgeted levels of spending pushed the overall fiscal deficit from 4.4% of GDP in 2012 to 11% in 2014 and around 9.6% in 2015.”
Jammeh’s differences with foreign lenders – whom he referred to as neo-colonial institutions – led to a four-year aid freeze. The biggest of them, the European Union, turned its back on the country over gross human rights issues. Foreign investors stayed away due to concerns over safety, or the lack of it, for freely operating businesses in the country. As Jammeh’s excesses grew, many foreign businesses were shut down, their owners arrested or expelled. The ex-leader became the biggest businessman in the country, venturing into all sorts of businesses, from bakeries to tomato production and selling baby nappies. Unable to compete, legitimate local companies went out of business.
Unable to mobilise external resources, Jammeh increasingly turned to domestic banks to finance a ballooning fiscal deficit. At a press briefing in Banjul last month, Barrow admitted his government has inherited a virtually bankrupt economy in need of immediate rescue.
The new government faces a huge task. It will have to chase after the money allegedly looted by Jammeh and bring it back into the country. There are strong hints, however, that relations with the EU could soon be restored. But the government will have to lure back foreign investors. Its biggest task, however, will be to devise policies that bridge the deep social and economic inequalities created by years of kleptocratic rule.
But it was not all a disaster. One of the biggest achievements of the Jammeh administration is the establishment of The Gambia’s first university in 1998. Many locals who attended the University of the Gambia are now doctors, lawyers, engineers – the bedrock of the country’s professional class. Jammeh often boasted about the infrastructure, including the roads and hospitals his government constructed. His supporters hailed his agricultural programmes which introduced the policy of “return to the land” to “stem the flow of rural-urban migration through credit, land and other agricultural input assistance programmes”. Jammeh’s Vision 2016 was received with euphoria when the ex-president launched it. The food self-sufficiency blueprint was to bring a 99% direct benefit to Gambians from the country’s endowed natural resources but was abandoned before it even kicked off.
The new government will have to harness some of these programmes into its own plans for the future, and come up with a viable economic and food self-sufficiency agenda to take The Gambia forward.