Dictator's Legacy Looms Large in Africa's Smallest Nation

Updated on
  • Gambia emerging from two decades of Yahya Jammeh’s rule
  • Vital tourism industry picking up; IMF has warned of high debt

A year ago, Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh was forced to step down as an army from several West African states amassed near the capital, Banjul. The legacy of his two decades of repressive rule is proving trickier to remove.

Under Jammeh’s democratically chosen successor, Adama Barrow, the smallest nation on mainland Africa is making a slow reckoning with the abuses of its past. Local elections are due next month and foreign tourists -- a vital source of revenue -- are returning to its beaches. Yet the government is dragging its feet on security-service reforms and grappling with debt that’s 120 percent of gross domestic product with few options to diversify the economy.

Adama Barrow arrives at Banjul International Airport on January 26, 2017.

Andrew Renneisen/Getty Image

“The Barrow government inherited a virtually non-functioning system, so we cannot expect miracles in a year,” said Sohna Salla, a member of the civil society group the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists. All the same, greater transparency and “meaningful reforms” in the security apparatus and civil service are vital for “a sustained path to democracy,” she said.

Gambia, home to about 2 million people surrounded by Senegal aside from its access to the Atlantic Ocean, has never had a smooth transfer of power. Jammeh seized control in a 1994 coup and isolated his regime by pledging to kill homosexuals, implementing the death penalty for other things and withdrawing from the Commonwealth. After initially acknowledging that Barrow won a late-2016 election, Jammeh refused to leave office until West African leaders decided to send Senegalese soldiers and Nigerian fighter jets to the capital.

Probe, Sanctions

The 52-year-old, who’s now in Equatorial Guinea, was sanctioned last month by the U.S. for alleged human-rights abuses and corruption during his rule. Barrow in July initiated a commission of inquiry to identify Jammeh’s assets and probe whether they were legally acquired. In his hometown of Kanilai -- where the former president established a wrestling arena and a zoo -- one of his mansions has become a military barracks. Yet he still has loyalists: this month saw limited clashes between his supporters and Barrow’s.

Such unrest presents Barrow with a dilemma. While he must retain the security services’ loyalty to prevent escalation, reforming the institution responsible for most of Jammeh’s abuses was a key election pledge, according to Trupti Agrawal, a research analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

There’s been some progress. Journalists and activists can openly voice criticism without fear of being jailed. Parliament passed a law in December to establish a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to probe state crimes committed during Jammeh’s reign, which activists say will pave the way for confronting the recent past.

“All that matters is that Jammeh and his accomplices are held accountable for what they did to the Gambian people,” said Fatoumatta Sandeng, daughter of opposition leader Solo Sandeng, whose April 2016 murder in detention galvanized anti-Jammeh sentiment.

Economic Headache

Barrow’s biggest headache may be the economy. While the International Monetary Fund has projected growth at 3 percent in 2017, up from 1.6 percent the year before, it has warned that debt inherited from Jammeh’s administration remains a “serious challenge.”

The high risk of debt distress means Gambia can’t access IMF or World Bank financing and will force Barrow to improve the management of public finances -- an “enormous” task, given the lack of transparency under Jammeh, Agrawal said.

Support may come from increasing foreign investment and new economic opportunities arising from improved relations with its much bigger neighbor, Senegal, according to Agrawal. Gambia opened bidding for exploration licenses of four offshore oil blocks in August.

With few other options, Gambia will probably remain reliant on trade and tourism, the latter making up 21 percent of GDP in 2016. The government has vowed to approve at least 10 new hotels and relax visa requirements in a bid to attract a million annual visitors by 2022.

Saikou Touray, a receptionist at Senegambia Beach, one of the most popular hotels in Banjul, said occupancy has been between 80 and 100 percent in the past three months.

That, he said, hasn’t happened for about four years.

(Adds investigation into Jammeh’s assets in paragraph after Probe, Sanctions subheadline.)
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