By Demba Baldeh – Political Commentary
As the adage goes “if you want it all you may end up losing it all”. President Adama Barrow is one of few leaders who was celebrated across the country, the subregion and the world for being trusted by the Gambian people to defeat an entrenched brutal dictator. He could be regarded as one of the luckiest men who the country rallied around to salvage a nation that was on the verge of political catastrophe.
For almost two decades the opposition political establishment in the Gambia could not muster the courage to successfully form a coalition to formidably challenge dictator Jammeh. All efforts to form a credible coalition fell flat on their faces while the political situation continued to deteriorate in the Gambia. Dictator Yahya Jammeh continued his iron fist grip on to power. He did not only stop at staying in power at all cost, but he went to a level where nothing seems to be able to stop him from doing what he wanted including brutally killing, arresting and subjecting citizens to torture and enforced disappearance. Jammeh held the country hostage and turned almost every institution and government machinery into his personal properties.
Gambians had enough of the brutality as no one remained untouched regardless of whether they served under Jammeh or not. Private citizens and businesses were all terrorized, intimidated and forced to pay loyalty to the regime. Nothing could move except what comes from Jammeh’s personal commands. The Gambian diaspora escalated their campaign against Jammeh’s brutality and was to some degree successful in discrediting the President and his government on gross human rights violations. Some took up arms against the government nearly toppling the regime. It came to a point where the political situation had reached boiling point and was a ticking time bomb ready to explode.
The situation became so alarming that Gambians had only one choice; put all differences aside and face the dictator or risk losing their political worth. Jammeh had a firm gripped on power and nothing seems stop him. Gambians had to rally together, put pressure on the political establishment to safe the nation. The only option was to salvage the country from the clutches of tyranny through the political process or watch the nation disintegrate into civil war. The stakes were too high for sons and daughters of the smiling coast to continue to have apathy to the status quo.
The urgency of now compelled Gambians to choose anybody from the political establishment to lead the country. Gambians, international rights groups and civil society mobilized resources to support the political process. A historic framework and process was put together led by seasoned politicians in the country. That process appeared to be the right formula that brought together political parties and independent citizens to select a single candidate to contest against Yahya Jammeh. The political situation got so tense it led to opposition leaders from the main opposition party being jailed and the rest of the nation demoralized to a breaking point. Adama Barrow an unknown member of the United Democratic party (UDP) emerged as the lucky candidate to lead a fragile coalition. The nation was inspired and encouraged as it became more apparent that there was a path to defeating Yahya Jammeh at the polls. The question became what will happen if he loses the elections? That was the big elephant in the room.
Democracy as they say is messy, but it works. When a people are given the opportunity to determine their destiny sooner rather than later, they will take control as power only belongs to the people. The country was energized and with minor electoral changes including on the spot counting of ballots, the tides turned against the incumbent.
The luckiest person among the team was Adama Barrow who received the support of the rest of the political establishment without full vetting. However, the stakes were far greater than going back to politics as usual. An MOU was crafted, and a framework and agreement was put together. This gave the Gambian people renewed hope and optimism to free themselves from two decades of tyranny. Many Gambians had lost their lives and majority lost their freedom and dignity. The people were determined to restore this lost glory. In December 2016 Adama Barrow was historically elected as the new President of the Gambia. The unthinkable had happened; for the first time in the history of Africa a brutal dictator was beaten at the polls. At first, Jammeh did not take it seriously and graciously conceded defeat. Few hours later the reality hit him; he has lost power and was to handover to the president-elect. The transition wasn’t smooth, and the subsequent weeks were rough as many Gambians fled the country to neighboring Senegal in anticipation of unrest in the country. Jammeh had annulled the elections and wanted a rerun. The president-elected was sworn in outside of the Gambia. Jammeh was no more and was forced to flee the country for exile to Equatorial Guinea after ECOWAS intervention.
Two years later, the hopes and optimism that greeted the nation started to fade away. Of course, President Barrow had slowly started reforming the system and had held on to certain values that the country expected with the change. Citizens are now free to participate in the political process without fear. Gambia’s International partners opened their wallets to support the transition government. A TRRC was set up, a Constitutional Review Commission established to write a new constitution. Many projects launched funded by international donors through loans and grants. A donor conference was organized in Europe and the new leadership got $1.4 billion pledges to implement its National Development Program (NDP). This blueprint appears to have been a foundation for President Barrow to negate on his promise to hand over power after the three years transition.
Historically, political transitions are very fragile in Africa. They are almost never honored by African leaders who seized power either through the barrel of the gun or through political coalition. No sooner than completing his first year in office, President Adama Barrow who was largely viewed as an ‘accidental president’ started to build political structures that appears to have come from the play book of previous African transition leaders and his predecessor. Jammeh had promised two years but end up ruling the country for over two decades. President Barrow had now tasted power and surrounded himself with people who never dream of attaining power. The president’s language began to slowly shift. He formed a youth movement, proclaim to have the mandate to rule for five years as stipulated in the constitution. President Barrow was all but completely negate on the three years transition which was the basis for other parties to support his candidacy.
The new Gambian president now has his eyes set on staying in power not for one term of five years, but ten years in complete disregard of his mandate he had promised to transition power after three years. He is on course to establish his own political party to contest the 2021 election. He will be yet another African leader who was trusted to lead a nation for an agreed period, but use the office of the incumbent to perpetuate himself in power. Barrow must be aware that he has one of the greatest opportunities to relinquish power, champion a historic government reform process and oversee a level electoral playing field. It appears though, the President successfully surrounded himself with people who has no political future and therefore the only tune they are singing to him is to form his own party and contest for future elections. This would be a colossal mistake even if he is to win the general elections. His legacy would be tainted and certainly he risks losing his respect for the transition period he promised. If he were to lose the elections which is very much possible, he would have lost everything. The only argument President Barrow’s surrogates advance in urging him to form a political party is simply because he is the incumbent and therefore it would be easier for him to win elections to stay in power. If the president listens to these opportunistic voices, he could go down as a man who had it all, but risk it all just for political power. That is exactly what happened to his predecessor, but President Barrow doesn’t seem to have learned from recent history. Time is the best judge, but a sad reality of political miscalculation is already in the making. We hope Barrow rethinks his current path and should he fail to honor the agreement not to contest in subsequent elections after the transition, the Gambian people must speak out loud and send a clear message that no one again will use the office of incumbency to perpetuate him/herself in power. A word for the wise is enough.
Disclaimer: Apology for the long read. It was designed to walk you memory lane and who the country got to where it is..