100 days with Barrow – A New Gambia

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By Viktor Sundman

This weekend, political commentators are turning their eyes to the USA to evaluate the first hundred days of the Trump presidency. In doing so, they are missing another businessman-turned-President who is passing the benchmark date by which early presidencies are judged: Adama Barrow of the Gambia.

Barrow was inaugurated as President at the Gambian embassy in Senegal on the 19th of January. His predecessor Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled the Gambia since taking power in a military coup in 1994, first accepted the results of the presidential elections in December 2016, where Barrow was proclaimed the winner, only to reverse his acceptance a week later. The Gambia was thrown into a month of political uncertainty, and on inauguration day, Jammeh was in talks with the West African regional organisation ECOWAS regarding the terms of his departure. Under the threat of a military intervention by the Gambia’s West African neighbours, and possibly with assurances that he would be spared prosecution by the International Criminal Court, Jammeh agreed to step down and left for Equatorial Guinea together with a line of luxury cars and allegedly more than $11 million from the state coffers. A week after the inauguration, Barrow returned to the Gambia.

Since the dramatic events in the middle of January, not much has been heard about the Gambia. What has President Barrow accomplished in his first 100 days? The big change is the repeal of a previous media commission bill, which was used to suppress the media, which greatly enhances the freedom of the Gambia’s media landscape and is an important step towards a fully democratic Gambia. Otherwise, except for a repeal of Jammeh’s withdrawal from the ICC and the removal of the word “Islamic” from the Republic of the Gambia’s official name (with a corresponding re-designation of Friday as a working day for government officials), there has not been that many changes.

The reason for this scarcity of early policy changes is that President Barrow needs a two thirds majority in the parliament to pass the necessary bills to carry out reforms. Until parliamentary elections were held in early April, the parliament was dominated by Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, which held 48 of the 58 parliamentary seats. After the elections, Barrow’s United Democratic Party now has a majority with 31 seats, and the President can finally start the process of putting his reforms forward for parliamentary approval. However, he may face opposition to some of his suggestions, as the new parliament is expected to play a significantly larger legislative role than the rubber-stamp parliament of Jammeh.

Herein lies the major change of these past 100 days in the Gambia. The country has held free and fair multiparty elections, where the previously dominating party lost almost all of their seats and a new parliament is gearing up to actually scrutinize incoming proposals. Restrictions on the media have been lifted, and several requests for broadcasting licenses have been submitted to the information ministry. In February, all prisoners detained without a trial – 171 in total – were released, and a truth and reconciliation commission will be set up some time in the coming six months to investigate abuses committed during Jammeh’s rule. These are all important steps towards making the Gambia a fully democratic country, a process that will take significantly longer than 100 days. But in this area, President Barrow is off to a good start.

Of course, Barrow will enact policy during his presidency as well, and not only focus on establishing and entrenching Gambian democracy. He has pledged to introduce free primary education, increase investment in previously neglected sectors such as technology in order to diversify an economy reliant on groundnut export and tourism, improve infrastructure, and re-build gutted institutions such as the judiciary.

President Barrow has a lot of work to do in order to lift the small country of just under 2 million people out of poverty and into democratic prosperity, but the Gambia has never had a better opportunity to strive for this goal. With the new parliament, President Barrow may begin to enact his vision for the Gambia, and the next 100 days will be as important to watch as the 100 first.

By Viktor Sundman

Banner photo from Flickr CC

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