Gambia’s President-elect Adama Barrow was sworn in yesterday at the Gambian Embassy in neighboring Senegal, as longtime leader Yahya Jammeh refused to give up power.
“This is a day no Gambian will ever forget in one’s lifetime,” Barrow said at the ceremony. “This is the first time since The Gambia became independent in 1965 that the country has changed its government through the ballot box,” the VOA has reported.
The inauguration was initially meant to take place yesterday in The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, but Jammeh had remained defiant.
Barrow won the country’s December 1 election. Jammeh, who once vowed to rule Gambia for “a billion years,” initially accepted the results, but changed his mind citing alleged voting irregularities.
Gambia’s neighbors in West Africa are trying to help resolve the situation.
Mauritania’s President Ould Abdel Aziz held talks with Jammeh, and then went to Senegal late Wednesday to meet with Barrow. Aziz told reporters he is “less pessimistic” about a peaceful outcome after talks with both men.
Liberia is the current ECOWAS chair. Liberian Information Minister Eugene Nagbe told VOA that military force is always the last resort, but that all options are on the table.
Nagbe said Barrow won the election ‘freely and fairly’ and that ECOWAS encourages Jammeh to respect the Gambian Constitution.
“ECOWAS’ position is very clear, that the mandate of the Gambian people … as expressed in the election … must be respected,” Nagbe told the VOA.
“On Thursday, Barrow was inaugurated and is thereafter recognized not just by ECOWAS, but also by the African Union and the rest of the world.”
Meanwhile, with tension and uncertainly hanging thickly in the air, much of the Gambian capital of Banjul was deserted Wednesday. Some tourists boarded special flights out of the country and crowded on to ferries to neighboring Senegal, but others remained behind at resort hotels.
Jammeh, who had seized power in a 1994 coup, retained his office in a series of elections until last month’s ballot.
Many Gambians say they are more than ready for a change in leadership.
Amnesty International and other major human-rights groups accused Jammeh of having little tolerance for dissent; they say he has killed or jailed many opponents.
He also has threatened to murder homosexuals, and once ordered the kidnapping of more than 1,000 villagers accused of being witches. They were forced to drink a vile liquid that sickened them.
Nearly 3,000 people have arrived in Karang, Senegal, since the start of January as tensions in Gambia escalated. The U.N. refugee agency says more than 26,000 have fled Gambia in total, and more are expected.
Barrow’s life story
Adama Barrow, a successful property developer who has never held public office, has defied the odds to score a shock victory in The Gambia’s December 1, 2016 elections.
His victory in the small West African nation’s presidential poll is arguably an even bigger shock than that of fellow property mogul in the US, Donald Trump.
Mr. Barrow’s opponent Yahya Jammeh, has ruled the country for more than two decades, but said if God willed it, his presidency could go on for “a billion years.”
Before the 51-year-old was chosen in September as the candidate to represent seven Gambian opposition parties at the election, he had spent 10 years working in property, having started his own estate agency in 2006.
In the early 2000s, he lived in the UK for several years, where he reportedly worked as a security guard at the Argos catalogue store in north London, while studying for his real estate qualifications.
British media have even reported that while guarding the shop on Holloway Road, he made a citizen’s arrest on a shoplifter, which resulted in a six-month jail term.
It was also during that period that Mr. Barrow chose to support Arsenal FC, at that time his local club.
Despite the uncertainty over whether the disputed election, he recently shared a picture on Twitter of him wearing the north London club’s jersey and declared support for the team.
He was born in 1965, the same year his country gained independence from British colonial rule, in a small village near the market town of Basse in the east of the country.
Throughout his campaign, he pledged support for an independent judiciary, as well as increased freedom for the media and civil society. A devout Muslim, he is reportedly married with two wives and five children.
He described his opponent as a “soulless dictator” and promised to undo some of Mr. Jammeh’s more controversial policies.
“We will take the country back to the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court (ICC),” he said.
Mr. Barrow also criticized the lack of a two-term limit on the presidency and condemned the jailing of political opposition figures.
In a BBC interview three days before the election, Mr. Barrow said that Gambians “had been suffering for 22 years” and were ready for change.
He scorned the achievements of his opponent, who boasted of having brought The Gambia out of the Stone Age with his education and health programs.
The hospitals President Jammeh had built had “no drugs… or quality doctors,” the schools “no teachers, no chairs… no good educational materials,” he said.
They were “white elephant projects.”
Although he became treasurer of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) in 2013, Mr. Barrow was not a household name in The Gambia. He was described as “little-known” even by one of the local media outlets supporting him.
In an interview with a local media, Mai Ceesay, a former UDP youth leader, describes Mr. Barrow as industrious and humble, calling him the perfect candidate.
“He is humble, kind and an industrious man who breaks the deal. He is down to the earth,” she said.
In his media appearances, Mr. Barrow comes across as laid back, almost guarded, but his infectious smile gives him a personable appearance.
But he is not a rousing speaker.
His accidental rise came after the jailing of UDP leader Ousainou Darboe, a long time nemesis of Mr. Jammeh, who was detained months before the December 1 election after leading a protest over the alleged death of an activist in police custody.
He was especially popular among young voters who have been badly hit by the country’s struggling economy.
On January 15, his eight-year-old son Habibu Barrow died reportedly after being bitten by a dog.
So The Gambia’s new leader has great expectations on his shoulders – as he makes history in a country which has not had a smooth transfer of power in his lifetime.
But he has to return home, first.