By Mustapha K. Darboe
Welcome to New Gambia — the slogan adopted by leading politicians who contributed to oust the now former strongman Yahya Jammeh after the Dec. 1 election.
A fresh start, marked by the respect for human rights and better relations with international partners, is what they promise under the leadership of the new president Adama Barrow.
Gambia’s controversial ex-president Jammeh was known for his quasi-belligerent barbs towards fellow African leaders and international organizations. Verbal attacks that gradually pushed his country into isolation.
In 2013, Jammeh pulled Gambia from the Commonwealth calling it a neo-colonial institution, the same argument he used when quitting the International Criminal Court late last year.
The new government led by President Adama Barrow promised the country would return to the ICC, the Commonwealth and also mend relations with key partners such as the European Union.
“We have just assumed the task of governing the country after two decades of dictatorship and self-imposed isolation […] A dictatorship that cost us our friends,” Barrow told Neven Mimica, the EU commissioner for international cooperation and development on Thursday.
Mimica landed in the country to sign a €75 million ($77.8 million) grant as part of what he said was a “new start” with Gambia after two decades of tense relations.
Jammeh, famous for parading around with trademark prayer beads, the Quran and a sword, had also been criticized by partners such as the EU for “human rights abuses”.
“We will ensure that those concerns are not only addressed but are speedily addressed. We will assure Commissioner [Mimica] that the decision to withdraw from the ICC will be rescinded […] very soon,” Ousainou Darboe, Gambia’s new foreign minister, also said on Thursday.
For over two decades, unpredictability constituted one of the hallmarks of Jammeh’s foreign policy and impromptu announcements abounded.
He suddenly severed ties with Taiwan and also expelled an EU diplomat in 2015, all short-notice decisions.
“Jammeh’s unilateral decision to withdraw Gambia from the Commonwealth and the ICC completed the gradual withdrawal of the country from the community of nations. President Barrow’s decision to return Gambia to the fold is a signal that the political leadership has decided to start mending the diplomatic fences that Jammeh had dismantled. It is a new dawn in Gambia’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the world,” Sidi Sanneh, a former minister under Jammeh and now a political analysts and a blogger, told Anadolu Agency.
However, signs have already shown that though Barrow’s administration intends to “bring Gambia back” as he often says, it will not be a smooth ride.
One of the contentious issues between Banjul and the European Union has been the issue of gay rights.
Campaign pledge of good governance
Barrow, it appears, will not change position as he would suggest to journalists on Thursday when asked if he is ready to take a softer position on gay rights.
In 2014, Jammeh had approved a law which made the crime of “aggravated homosexuality” punishable by life imprisonment.
“Homosexuality is not an issue in Gambia,” a visibly uncomfortable Barrow said after a brief hesitation during a signing ceremony with EU Commissioner Mimica.
His administration came to power on promises of greater economic prosperity, employment creation.
“Gambia’s economic outlook is dire and thus will take a real and sustained effort to reverse our fortunes. Youth unemployment is one of the most daunting challenges facing the new administration. Because the Barrow administration is a transition government that is to last for only three years, it will be difficult for him to fulfill all of the campaign promises he’s made,” Sanneh adds.
But most importantly, he campaigned on the promise of good governance and rule of law. However, his first appointment already violated the constitution.
While he was in Senegal where he was inaugurated, President Barrow registered his first controversy by appointing Fatoumata Jallow as vice president, a woman who was constitutionally over the age limit allowed by the constitution.
“It has been a bit discouraging for the fact that the first step of the coalition violated the constitution which is the appointment of the vice president,” Essa Njie, a Gambian political analyst tells Anadolu Agency. “We believe that their actions should be in line with the constitution because that was their campaign promises.”
The new administration also renamed the country’s intelligence agency using an executive order which was not in line with the law since such changes should be done by the National Assembly.
However, the government on Wednesday issued a press statement explaining that this was only a statement of intent and that the due process of the law will be followed.
A promise many of Barrow’s followers hope — and expect — to be kept.