In 2016, and until he was unveiled as the candidate for a coalition of parties in the presidential election that year, then-candidate Adama Barrow merely occupied the periphery of public consciousness. Apart from a failed run, or perhaps a couple more, for the parliamentary seat in his native Jimara in elections prior, Barrow’s was far from an acclaimed presence in the Who’s Who in Gambian electoral affairs.
Barrow who? Many Gambians wondered about the man, this inexperienced entrant in national electoral politics and at a time of heightened disquiet about Yahya Jammeh, the incumbent and a brutal dictator who, it seemed, was giving his ‘last’ nod to representative democracy. Kingship and monarchical rule —— alien, dangerous even, concepts for a time-traveled multiparty democracy like ours —— were making rounds out of the Jammeh State House and among some of his ardent supporters.
The leader of the coalition in the 2016, who turned out to be Barrow, became the last bastion of hope against an increasingly venturesome leader determined to change the architecture of governance to further slake his thirst for cumulative power. So Jammeh’s defeat and Barrow’s ascendancy helped prevent the tyranny of one man from further deepening its roots in Gambian political soil.
Lack of experience
But beneath the euphoria about the fall of Jammeh and the survival of democracy, the lingering questions about Barrow from the get-go had always centered around both the adequacy and the expediency of his candidacy: was he the right person to head the Coalition? Were others, more experienced and knowledgeable, overlooked?
Barrow won the vote to become the Coalition candidate, meaning democracy was responsible for his placement. But then democracy is error-plagued; it has a way of rewarding the unfit and the ignorant. Barrow’s ascendancy, owing largely to parochial interests ginned up by intra-party rivalries, made a hash of experience and competence, two important ingredients for transformational leadership, the kind The Gambia needed during its post-dictatorship overhauling of civil society.
President Barrow has failed to provide that kind of leadership. That he would be bereft of experience at the start of his presidency was never in doubt. We knew all along he would fumble, that he was prone to amateurishness in his daily conduct of government business.
The hope, moving past Barrow’s inadequacies, was that he would learn on the job and surround himself with experienced personnel to guide him on ideas and policies and on how to navigate the ship of state. But Barrow has learned very little. Or he hasn’t been learning fast enough.
And he has been a terrible recruiter of talent. A leader like him, who came into office with zero experience and with a limited intellectual ballast, needed a VP more experienced than him, who would guide him through the labyrinth of presidential undertakings. But his vice-presidents, a total of three in five years, and a terrible record for that matter, all turned out to be as poorly equipped in statecraft and governance.
With his other appointments, like Finance Minister Mambury Njie, a holdover from the Jammeh Administration, and Lands Minister Musa Drammeh, a relic from the distant political past, the impression runs rampant that the old system still holds sway, that instead of being completely forward-looking with fresh faces and new ideas, Barrow is ushering a throwback to a flawed past, and one that is out of sync with The Gambia’s new yearnings for change and reform.
His has been an observer-presidency. For some reason, one gets the impression that Barrow is merely an onlooker from the sidelines. He doesn’t make things happen. Rather, things happen, in spite of, and away from, him. Translations: he isn’t in control. His subordinates aren’t afraid of him. He exudes timidity in the flexing of presidential muscle and executive power.
The Gambia needs, and Barrow hasn’t provided any of it, an interventionist presidency, one that brings the full might of its machinery to bear on the most pressing needs of the citizenry: jobs and welfare, health and education, peace and security. But joblessness is still an acute problem. Mortality deaths have taken on an ominous frequency in our poorly equipped health facilities. The cost of living continues to rise. Electricity cuts continue unabated. Kidnappings and killings have picked up pace.
In this election, unlike 2016, Barrow is an incumbent running on a record. And during elections involving incumbents, the question is often asked: are you better off today than ….. say, five years ago?
Under Barrow, The Gambia has registered a remarkable progress in the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, freedom of speech and of the press. Gambians are freer today than they were five years ago. Barrow isn’t necessarily the provider of these revamped guardrails of democracy in the country. He is merely a custodian of them. And his custodianship, in this regard, has been impressive so far.
But on the bread-and-butter issues directly impacting quotidian life, Barrow has been utterly lacking in presidential leadership. He hasn’t shown the capability that Gambians are yearning for in their leader and hasn’t given any indication that he would take a corrective course of action years hence.