5 February 2017

Gambia: Big Hopes for the New Gambia

Photo: Twitter
President Adama Barrow.
opinion

The Gambian political crisis appears to be over with President Adama Barrow having taken the reins of power, successfully and peacefully, with the backing and support of ECOWAS. So, what is next for sub-Saharan Africa's newest democracy following 22 years of authoritarian rule by outgoing dictator Yahya Jammeh?

First and foremost, expectations of Barrow's government are high, not only from the Gambian people. Many of ECOWAS's leaders - of note: Senegal's Macky Sall, Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, and Liberia's Johnson Sirleaf, have put their reputations, resources, and the future direction of West Africa on the line and will expect positive results from Barrow.

In addition, on a broader strategic note, one of the most important stories of the entire Jammeh head-spinning drama leading up to Barrow's January 19 swearing-in is ECOWAS achieving something that the African Union (AU) is yet to: commit to physically removing a dictator from power with forces on the ground, ready to carry out the mandate.

Hence, the AU - although it has talked for decades about the importance of democratic governance and respect for elections - has never taken any action similar to ECOWAS's in the Gambia against an African presidential peer. I hope going forward that the AU really takes a page out of ECOWAS's playbook on how to handle African presidents who fail to adhere to the democratic outcome of an election and the will of the people.

That said, Barrow's good stewardship of the forward movement of Gambia's democracy will be critical. Barrow has said since taking office that he plans to institute good human rights and governance practices, address longtime concerns about the country's security agencies, reform the military, and ensure that those wrongly accused (especially political prisoners) who are behind bars are given due process or freed - all important and great things for a new democracy to do.

What does all this mean for the Gambian people?

Although Gambia has not had good governance in a long time, expectations among the Gambian people are high.

The fact that 63 percent of the population are 25 years-old or younger is an important fact that cannot be stressed enough. This means that most of the country's population has not known any other leadership except Jammeh's ruthlessness, but will be looking to experience an open political process, dialogue, freedom of association and the press.

They will also expect Barrow to quickly address the country's long-time economic woes, its high poverty levels which hover around 48 percent of the population, and high youth unemployment. According to several news reports, Barrow stated that Gambia faces a large budget deficit of $107m, which is mostly the result of mismanagement, over-expenditure, and likely also caused by theft during the Jammeh regime, which would include Jammeh himself (Reports are that Jammeh stole approximately $11m upon his departure from the country).

However, the new Gambian president will need to find ways to cover both the budget gaps, as well as expand the country's narrow economic base - which is mostly focused on revenue from tourism, agriculture and remittances; address social issues of education and health; provide for the large increase in rural to urban migration; and focus on infrastructure development.

Jammeh - a life of impunity?

The question now is whether or not Jammeh will get away with all the crimes he has committed, which would not serve the positive resolution of the country's political crisis well or help further solidify West Africa's overall democracy efforts.

Furthermore, the Gambian people will be expecting Jammeh's crimes to be addressed. Democracy is several things, including but not limited to: freedom of speech, association, the press, free and fair elections, and respect for the rule of law, which includes not getting a pass on crimes committed by those in power.

For sub-Saharan Africa to continue to have mature democratic processes, it also must show that leaders who break the law, and steal the wealth of their nation, must answer for their crimes. Jammeh's exile to Equatorial Guinea (an interesting choice - and possibly the only choice at the time given that its leader has behaved similarly to Jammeh for nearly as many years) hopefully will be temporary, so that he can face charges of both human right abuses and illicit enrichment.

It will be important for the region to demonstrate that impunity is no longer an acceptable practice along with leaders thwarting free and fair election. We hope that it does not take decades to bring Jammeh to justice, like it did with former Chadian leader, Hassan Habre, who was tried and convicted in Senegal in May 2016 (hats off again to Senegal's President Sall on this).

If Jammeh's crimes are left unpunished, it would undercut all of the great recent effort by ECOWAS on standing up to tyrants in the region and certainly be a disappointment to the people of Africa's newest democracy in the Gambia.

Ambassador Robin Renee Sanders is CEO of FEEEDS and former US Permanent Representative to ECOWAS and US Ambassador to Nigeria and Republic of Congo.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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