Barrow Returns to Gambia as President Amid High Expectations

Updated on
  • West African soldiers patrol capital as new President arrives
  • Former President Jammeh went into exile in Equatorial Guinea

Adama Barrow

Photographer: Jerome Delay/AP Photo

Gambian President Adama Barrow returned from neighboring Senegal to take office after his predecessor went into exile under a threat by West African leaders to remove him by force.

Barrow touched down at 5 p.m. at the airport in the capital, Banjul, on Thursday as thousands gathered for his arrival a week after his inauguration at the Gambian embassy in Senegal.

This is “a proud day day for Gambians and a day of freedom from the ruling of modern slavery,” said Musa Sanneh, who awaited Barrow’s return at the airport amid dancing and the beating of drums. “The country has to be well developed now. If people are developed then the country will be different.”

West African soldiers deployed across Banjul to prepare for Barrow’s arrival a day after Yahya Jammeh agreed to go into exile in Equatorial Guinea, ending a standoff that began with a Dec. 1 presidential election. Jammeh, who had ruled since a 1994 coup, initially acknowledged he lost the vote to Barrow before changing his mind and trying to reverse the outcome a week later.

Barrow, 51, was relatively unknown in Gambian politics before the election, assuming leadership of the opposition only after a coalition of anti-Jammeh parties sought to replace Ousainou Darbou, who was jailed in July because he’d organized a rare protest march.

The Economic Community of West African States decided to take military action after Jammeh declared a 90-day state of emergency last week. The organization mobilized the Nigerian air force to get ready to intervene, while Senegalese soldiers rolled into Gambia. Jammeh finally stepped down early on Jan. 21 following last-ditch mediation efforts by Guinean President Alpha Conde and Mauritanian leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

High Expectations

Barrow, who previously dealt in real estate, is facing high popular expectations and the challenge of keeping a coalition together that hasn’t always showed a united front, according to Adeline Van Houtte, Africa analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Assuming that he’s able to implement his campaign promises, he will form a transitional government made up of members of the seven parties that supported his candidacy,” Van Houtte said in e-mailed comments. “There’s a risk that in-fighting will undermine the effectiveness of the coalition’s policy-making.”

Jammeh had isolated the smallest nation on mainland Africa by pledging to kill homosexuals, implementing the death penalty and withdrawing from the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court. The country of about 2 million has a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, while the rest of its territory is surrounded by Senegal.

Barrow’s victory marks the first time that Gambia changes its leader through the ballot since gaining independence from Britain in 1965.

The regional support for the handover of power may galvanize opposition forces elsewhere in Africa, said Van Houtte.

“If the new government manages to live up to popular expectations, this transition has the potential to be considered as an example to follow in other countries,” she said.