Adama Barrow: A biography

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Mankamang Kunda is a village in Jimara District in the Upper River Region of The Gambia. On 15th February 1965, just a few days before The Gambia became free from the clutches of colonialism, a son was born to a Mandinka man Mamadou Barrow and his Fula wife Kadijatou Jallow. He was given the name Adama. Unbeknown to his parents, he would one day become president of the country.

Young Adama was among the few children in the area who resolved to go to school in those days when the value of Western education was not well appreciated by people in the community.  Ordinarily, he would have pursued a life as a cattle herder or a petty shopkeeper considering the compelling lines of trades or profession prevalent within the community in which he grew up.

But Adama’s determination to get educated was to be favoured by divine providence. His parents were poor and uneducated and since he lost his father at an early age, his mother had to support his ambition to be educated.

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Pupil Adama attended Koba Kunda Primary School in Basse from 1975 to 1981. Burning with a zeal for a better education while living in society where there was an acute lack of prospects for education, he decided to go in search of the golden fleece.

With a small sum of money in his pocket and the earnestness that the undertaking implied, he travelled all the way to Banjul, to do his junior secondary education. This distant journey was done mainly on foot and hitchhiking to the Kombos and later Banjul. He enrolled at Crab Island Secondary School.

As fortune continued to smile on him, he was supposed to stop at the junior secondary level and perhaps secure a menial job to support the pursuit of his academic ambition in future, but instead received a scholarship to proceed to Muslim High School in Banjul.

Upon completion of his high school education in 1988, Adama secured a job as salesman with Musa Njie & Sons Limited, a company owned by Alhaji Musa Njie, a well-known and successful Sarahule businessman and real estate owner. It was this grounding as a realtor that shaped the professional career of Adama Barrow as a real estate agent.

Working for Alhaji Musa gave an orientation that was wholly out of the common and which would be pivotal in the development of his own strong character. These influences are easily recognisable in President Barrow today by people who knew Alhaji Musa Njie.

Adama rose to the rank of a sales manager at the gas filling company of Alhaji Musa Njie & Sons Limited. While in the employment of the company, people may have expected him to spend all his working life there considering the visible prospects that awaited him in the company. But, it is a common fact that people destined for greatness are not usually considered rational or realistic by society’s standards. Instead of blindly accepting what others tell them, they make the decision to form their own unique path. They are the type of people who believe reality can be shaped in their minds, and they go for it. They do not believe in failure, and they never see failure. They obviously make mistakes. Things do not always go their way. But they treat everything like an experiment. Ambitious people are like good scientists who continue to conduct experiments until they make a breakthrough discovery. This is a trait that is typical of Barrow.

Despite the generous benefits and perks from his employment with Musa Njie & Sons Limited, he resigned to search for greener pastures. He travelled to the United Kingdom to study and acquire skills. But, it was not an easy road for him. While he enrolled as a student, he concurrently worked as a security guard at a local Argos store in order to finance his studies. He later described these experiences as formative, saying: “Life is a process, and I have no doubt that the UK helped me to become the person I am today. Working 15 hours a day builds a man.”

Following his graduation from real estate studies in 2006, he returned to The Gambia and established Majum Real Estate company. From 2006 up to 2016 he was the Chief Executive Officer of the company. His cordial relationship with former boss and mentor Alhaji Musa Njie, brotherly relationship with Sarahules from his native region, proved invaluable in this new venture. A large number of his clients are Sarahule property owners, particularly those living abroad.

Politics

Adama Barrow’s entry into politics can be better viewed as embarking on a liberation mission. The United Kingdom’s The Sunday Times of 20th November 2016 stated: “Like thousands of other Africans working in Britain, Adama Barrow was a foot soldier in the army of uniformed security guards manning reception desks and patrolling high-street shops. The burly Gambian tackled troublemakers at Argos on Holloway Road in north London and once made a citizen’s arrest that handed a shoplifter six months in jail. Now, 15 years later, the 51-year-old is taking on a much tougher customer – the president of his homeland, Yahya Jammeh, one of Africa’s last remaining strongman.”

Truly, on Barrow’s return to The Gambia, his native home, he came across a much tougher ‘shoplifter’, Yahya Jammeh a ruthless treasury –lifter who ruled The Gambia for 22 years with an iron-fist, and whose main stock-in-trade was brigandage and the oppression of his people. In one of his interviews with the press, Barrow noted that his reason for joining politics is to contribute to changing the governance system in the country, and indeed, he received a purposeful luck.

Successful people, in fact, get lucky sometimes. But, this luck comes because they put themselves in a position to be lucky. Opportunity mixed with preparation creates luck. When one is determined to become great, opportunities will present themselves and the person will be prepared to seize them. Adama Barrow expressed interest in politics since 1996 when he gave support to the opposition party, United Democratic Party (UDP), The Gambia’s main opposition party that for two decades stoutly challenged the dictatorship of Jammeh. Under the ticket of the party, he contested the National Assembly elections of 2002 in the Jimara Constituency and lost to the APRC candidate, Mamma Kandeh.

In 2006, Adama Barrow obtained the nomination of his party to stand once again for seat of Jimara constituency. With the large following that he had built since the last elections and the work he was doing at the grassroots level in the whole region, particularly in Jimara, he was surely going to win this time round. This however was not to be. The party with its ally the National Reconciliation Party decided to boycott the National Assembly elections, after Jammeh dubiously won the presidential elections. The UDP/NRP alliance believed that the electoral playing field was so uneven that unless certain malpractices were discontinued, it will not participate in the elections. These demands were ignored by the IEC and the government resulting in the decision to boycott with all alliance candidates withdrawing.

Over the years Adama Barrow has been an active member of the UDP and in 2008, he was appointed coordinator of the UDP Upper River Regional Committee, in replacement of Yaya Jallow, who had been combining that position with that of deputy secretary general. Barrow therefore became a full member of UDP national executive. Within a few years, he was able to consolidate the party and increased its membership in the region and support for the party increased considerably, particularly among the Sarahule and Fula communities. His rise in the party continued when he was appointed assistant national treasurer to assist the treasurer Amadou Sanneh. While serving in this capacity, the party saw a substantial growth with disbursement of funds for activities of the regional committees.

In 2016 the UDP countrywide tour led by Ousainu Darboe and members of the party executive was stopped by police at Fass Njaga Choi in Niumi purportedly because the party had no authorisation. For several days there was a standoff at the village. In the meantime, the villagers were very supportive and provided places for the convoy members to sleep and food and water were also made available. Afterwards, the government yielded and issued a permit. The tour continued and was hailed as one of the most successful political sorties the party had ever organised. This incident marked a new turn in the politics of intimidation and highhandedness. From that moment onwards, political parties, particularly the UDP had punched the regime in the eye and continue to do that any time a permit is denied to them. 

The second event that changed the political landscape in 2016 was the demonstration organised by some youths, mainly from the UDP led by Ebrima Solo Sandeng, the UDP organising secretary in demanding for electoral reforms. The police brutalised them and arrested many of them, including Sandeng, who was tortured and killed in custody. Solo like Steve Biko the South African nationalist was tortured and murdered by police of the Apartheid regime. His body was never returned to his family. This engendered national and international outcry, yet, the body was never handed over to the family. This led to the third incident which was the turning point in the history of Gambian politics.

When the demand for the release of the unlawfully detained demonstrators were unheeded, the national executive staged a march demanding the release of Solo Sandeng “dead or alive” and the other detained demonstrators. Ousainu Darboe and his group were manhandled, arrested and detained for months without bail and sentence to four years imprisonment. The trials of the detainees that ensued jolted the entire citizenry as courthouses were packed with UDP supporters and well-wishers defying the police and demonstrating that the fear that Yahya Jammeh had embedded in the Gambian psyche had dissipated and nobody was afraid.

With these three incidents, all within the same year a new era appeared to be dawning in The Gambia with political climate changing dramatically. The cycle of elections, starting with presidential was fast approaching and the prospect of Jammeh winning even if the opposition remain divided, was bleak. However, efforts were underway to bring the parties together. After the incumbent, Jammeh, declared he will be a candidate, the opposition political parties started selecting their candidates. The UDP organised its own selection meeting after inviting candidates to apply. Three people applied including Adama Barrow, and he won with an impressive majority. Negotiations started and committees were established to draft modalities for possible coalition of all political parties. Finally, a coalition of seven political parties, UDP, NRP, PDOIS, PPP, GMC, GPDP, NCP and an independent candidate Dr Isatou Touray, was established. Agreement was reached to organise a convention.

Barrow who was relatively unknown compared to the other candidates who have been in politics since 1994 or even earlier was elected as the candidate of the coalition for the 2016 presidential election.

Prior to this epoch-making choice, he was just a businessman who was largely known as a politician. He had not previously held any elected office. In accordance with the memorandum signed by all political parties in the coalition, on 3rd November 2016 therefore, Adama Barrow formally resigned from the UDP to contest the election as an independent candidate, with the full backing of coalition 2016.

In an interview at the time, he stated: “Our chances are great as people have shown us tremendous support,” a support which he was confident will lead to “win with a bigger margin”. And rightly so. He delivered a massive victory for the opposition in the presidential polls with 43.34% of the vote. Yahya Jammeh won 39.6% of the vote, and the third party candidate, Mamma Kandeh won 17.1% of the vote.

Jammeh accepted then later rejected the results and declared a state of emergency to try to prevent Barrow from being sworn-in as president. Barrow was then sworn-in as the president of The Gambia at The Gambia High Commission in Dakar, Senegal, on 19th January 2017 after the expiration of Jammeh’s mandate.

Military forces from Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana entered The Gambia in an Ecowas military operation with a mission to restore. On 21st January 2017, Jammeh left The Gambia for Equatorial Guinea, in exile paving the way for the transition of power with Adama Barrow as the new head of government. 

Adama Barrow was given a fresh five-year mandate after he won 53% of votes in the 2021 presidential election.

Barrow enjoys football as well as reading newspapers. He speaks Mandinka, Fula, Wolof, Sarahule and English. He is a devout Muslim and says his faith guides his life and politics.

He practices polygamy and has two wives, Fatoumatta Bah and Sarjo Mballow.

He has four living children after one died shortly before his inauguration while he was in Dakar Senegal.

Culled from President Barrow: The Making of A New Gambia by Amadou Taal and Ebraima Manneh 2017. The book is available at Timbooktoo Bookshop along Garba Jahumpa Road, Fajara