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Gambia’s ‘baby democracy’ strugglesto take root as disillusionment deepens

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Ndow Darboe was jubilant when Gambia’s opposition leader Adama Barrow ousted the country’s autocratic president six years ago, sharing the widespread view that it would usher in an era of renewal after decades of dictatorship.

But he and many other Gambians have since become disillusioned by Barrow’s failures to confront the west African nation’s deep economic and social challenges. “People are suffering,” said Darboe, a farmer from the coastal town of Serekunda.

Barrow’s victory and the 2017 removal of Yahya Jammeh — who initially refused to step aside — was Gambia’s first constitutional transfer of power since independence in 1965 and became emblematic of west Africa’s democratic aspirations. Yet the lack of substantial change has fed the sense of an opportunity squandered, with fears the small country of 2.6 million would join the democratic backsliding that has hit the region in recent years.

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Darboe said the disappointment with Barrow was so widespread that some would even vote for Jammeh to return. “We’ll go back to the devil we know,” he said. “He made a lot of mistakes, with the killings, but there was development.”

Jammeh, who has been in exile in Equatorial Guinea since 2017, was accused of widespread human rights abuses and repression during his 22-year reign, including jailing and torturing opponents. A commission set up by Barrow’s administration to investigate allegations against the former regime concluded that hundreds of people were killed on Jammeh’s watch and recommended that he should be prosecuted.

Marr Nyang, founder of anti-corruption group Gambia Participates, said anyone seeking Jammeh’s return was “myopic”, but he agreed Barrow’s government had done little to improve the lives of ordinary Gambians, create a better system of governance or boost the tourist-reliant economy.

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“Barrow’s tenure has been two steps forward, five steps back, then one step forward again,” he said. “We have a baby democracy [that] should be able to walk, but it’s crawling.”

Barrow, a security guard in London in the 2000s and one-time property developer, was little-known in Gambia when he ran for the presidency.

His tenure got off to a difficult start when he was forced to hold his inauguration in neighbouring Senegal as Jammeh clung to power. The threat of intervention by troops from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) eventually persuaded Jammeh to stand down.

Yet Gambia’s problems have continued: its gross domestic product per capita, at $772 in 2021, is among the world’s lowest. The pandemic hit to the economy took the percentage of its population living in poverty to more than 53 per cent last year, from 45.8 per cent in 2019, according to the World Bank. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent food and energy costs soaring.

More than three-quarters of respondents to a recent Afrobarometer poll said corruption had increased under Barrow. Gambia Participates has alleged mismanagement of funds meant to help the coronavirus recovery, including a scheme where lists of health workers were padded out with fake names to secure extra money. Gambia’s health minister acknowledged in 2020 that his department had uncovered such corruption.

The president has also drawn criticism for maintaining the Ecowas military mission deployed when Jammeh refused to stand down, rather than allowing security to be handled by Gambian forces.

Mariama Cisse, who sells smoothies on Serekunda’s Poco Loco beach, said the foreign soldiers were only there to protect the president. “We removed Jammeh in 2016 and we should remove Barrow in 2026 to get someone better,” she said.

Parliament’s failure to advance a new constitution that would have limited the president to two terms in office is another source of public anger.

“[Barrow] keeps saying he believes in term limits, but he’s not supporting the constitution that would bring in term limits,” said Nyang. “Gambians are tired of presidents ruling for more than 10 years.”

Sait Matty Jaw, executive director of the Center for Research and Policy Development, said Gambia cannot enter a democratic era without a new charter to replace the 1997 document in use now. “Gambia needs a new constitution, not only for term limits, but for other reforms like security because the police and military are still governed by colonial-era laws,” he said.

A presidential spokesperson defended Barrow’s government, saying it had spent D1.5 billion ($24m) on fuel subsidies to cushion the effect of rising fuel price. The spokesperson said Barrow supported term limits and had told the attorney-general and justice minister to revive the constitutional review.

However uncertainty over an alleged coup attempt in December has underscored the fragility of Gambia’s political renewal in a region where democracy remains under pressure. Military juntas have in recent years taken over in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Observers have questioned the official version of events that led to the arrest last year of a group of Gambians, including military figures, who were accused of plotting to overthrow Barrow’s government.

A western diplomat in Gambia told the Financial Times that the story “didn’t add up” and that the presence of the Ecowas forces would have prevented any coup. Five of the alleged coup plotters were released in January and the trial of five others continues.

Lamin Marong, a telecoms worker taking a stroll on Poco Loco beach, said that despite the general misgivings about the direction Gambia was heading under Barrow, there was one big difference under his leadership: the fact that people could criticise the government without fear.

“You can insult the president, go home and nobody will come for you,” he said. “Freedom is one of the best things anyone can enjoy.”

Source: Finincial Times

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