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Gambia under Barrow: Space for Political Critique Widens, but Discontent and Frustration Grow

On Saturday 18th February, 2017, tens of thousands of Gambians thronged the Independence Stadium in Bakau, singing and chanting songs of freedom, to celebrate the historic inauguration of President Adama Barrow. Outside the stadium, tens of thousands of others trooped, wearing ‘Gambia Has Decided’ t-shirts, drumming, singing and dancing to the tunes in what was perhaps the biggest gathering in the Gambia’s history. Thousands more poured into the streets across the country to celebrate the inauguration which coincided with the 52nd independence anniversary.

The nationwide euphoria on that day was a reaction to the end of the rule of Yahya Jammeh, who for two decades, presided over one of Africa’s worst dictatorships, characterized by heavy political and social repression against dissenters and anybody else who dared fail to support him or his government.

Raffie Diab, a Gambian businessman and activist who co-founded the #GambiaHasDecided movement, was among the crowd at the stadium to celebrate the new political dispensation.

Raffie Diab @ the 2017 inauguration of Barrow

“I was very happy that for the first time after 22 years, we were free. We were caged. There was no freedom. You could see that everybody was happy and excited to be at the stadium and to be part of the history.”

Kaddy Cham, a young journalist arrived at the stadium as early as 6am just so she could secure a good place to take photos and cover the event. “It felt good because we achieved the change we all yearned for and it was very emotional to me personally witnessing such an event after the unfortunate political impasse”,

Ebrima A.S. Jobarteh, a security guard, was at the stadium by 4am to have a seat. “I never went to the stadium before that day. But I decided to go because I was so happy that Gambians were finally free. We had to celebrate in style”, he said.

Fatoumata Sambou whose printing house was ransacked by alleged agents of Jammeh for merely printing and distributing #GambiaHasDecided t-shirts, hailed the event as the beginning of what she saw as change.

“I was really glad that at least there was change of government. I was high up in the moon for dislodging a system that enslaved its own citizens.”

The jubilant Gambians were generally hoping for a just and inclusive political and economic order that they yearned for throughout the Jammeh rule. In his address, President Barrow promised a new dawn of freedom, prosperity and inclusiveness and a Gambia which would be ‘a beacon of peace and hope for others to draw lessons from.’

He pledged to keep alive the hopes of the tens of thousands of men and women who were out there to celebrate him and his presidency.

But two years on, the echoes of the songs of freedom and hope which reverberated in and around the Independence Stadium and across the streets, have largely disappeared. Today, the euphoria of 18th February 2017 is gone and what’s left is discontent.

“I’m very disappointed with this administration. We haven’t seen what was promised to us,” said Raffie. “Very little is being done and all we are seeing is politicking, pettiness and infighting. At the end of the day, there’s no progress. It’s very sad that we are in this deplorable situation after all we went through for change.”

“When we decided to vote and protect our votes for change, we were yearning for a better and more progressive change. But today, the cost of living is becoming unbearable to average Gambians because they cannot afford it.”

In his inaugural speech at the stadium in 2017, President Barrow promised his government would make ‘proper assessment of employment and unemployment rates especially among the young people and undertake a major drive to promote employment in all sectors.’

But Jobarteh doesn’t think those promises are fulfilled. “My expectation of a new Gambia has been defeated as we are seeing the same governance style of Yahya Jammeh. The promise to create jobs for the youths has never been delivered. We are faced with high commodity prices, growing unemployment rate. I lose hope in this government.”

For Kaddy, “Barrow promised youth and women empowerment, but once he got into the statehouse unfortunately, he forgot about these promises.”

Not everybody thinks the administration is off the cliff. Fatoumata wants Gambians to give chance to Barrow to complete a five-year term, arguing that it would be hard for any sitting president to deliver to the expectation of the citizens in three years.

“President Barrow is on the right track as far as his promises for development are concerned and of course we have witnessed the launching and inauguration of projects across the country which were never possible since Gambia attained its independence,” she said.

Sait Matty Jaw, a political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia also acknowledged the difficulties associated with transitions in any country.

“Barrow was elected on a transitional programme to reform institutions and also to make sure that the democracy that everyone talks about is achieved and also to set the foundation for the next government to come in.”

Jaw said Barrow’s two-year rule so far has created conducive environment when it comes to political critique. In 2014, he was arrested and detained by the Jammeh regime for his political activism. He’s pleased the space to speak and debate has changed from that controlled and repressive dictatorship under Jammeh to a significantly more open pitch under Barrow.

“Civil liberties and political rights have expanded. Today I am comfortable to criticize Barrow and speak my mind because the environment is there,” he said.

However, he said that the whole idea of transitional programme has been hijacked when Barrow introduced a National Development Plan that goes up to five years instead of three.

Barrow’s presidential term has been a hot issue of discussion after he hinted that he’d go for a full five-year term, contrary to a three-year mandate he and his coalition partners agreed on when he was running for president under the coalition ticket.

Jaw also frowned at the economic situation of the country, which he said requires urgent attention.

“In terms of socio-economic situation, the basis of what should sustain and maintain our democracy, I think people are still going to bed hungry and things are getting expensive. I think those are issues that need to be looked into so that the euphoria and all the hopes that came with change can be revitalized.”

On the issue of transparency, Jaw said; “I don’t think Barrow is transparent because there are so many things that could have been avoided. Right now we see more of Barrow than we see of Gambia. He easily realizes himself. I was disappointed when he said there is a different level when it comes to the struggle against Jammeh and he was the number one. He must stop personalizing issues.”

Kebba Jeffang contributed to this story.

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