18 November 2017

Gambians Enjoy New Freedoms

At Banjul International Airport, there are three jets on the runway inscribed Republic of The Gambia.

They are part of four aeroplanes that were a symbol of former president Yahya Jammeh's 22-year autocratic rule over the impoverished small West African nation.

An airport official said that the 54-year-old former leader had wanted to leave the country with the jets after he was ousted from power in the December 2016 election.

However, his successor, President Adama Barrow, made sure the jets were impounded.

"He wanted to take the planes because he had personalised them. They were for him and his family. Everything belonged to him," the airport official said.

The seemingly new and well-maintained jets are a stark contrast to the dilapidated Banjul airport at which they are parked. The government has said it will sell off the jets.

As we line up in the humid heat waiting for our entry visas, I notice that Banjul Airport has rickety fans that seem like they will fall off the ceiling any minute.

Passengers and the hospitable immigration officials sweat away in the heat. Paint is peeling off the walls and everything, from the conveyor belt to the partitioning, looks old and outdated.

A drive into Banjul ushers you into the reality of what Jammeh's rule was like --poor infrastructure and planning, poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. Youth and women line the streets hawking merchandise and fruits.

The capital's streets are dirty and there is no proper drainage. Cows and donkeys are a common sight alongside piles of fresh watermelons and garbage.

When we arrive at the hotel in Brufut, which is a few kilometres outside Banjul, we are told that the 5-star facility was previously owned by Jammeh, like most of the other important facilities in Banjul. The current government is trying to repossess the properties and businesses or put them under the ownership of the government.

Our hotel, the Gambia Coral Beach Hotel, in Brufut Heights, Serrekunda, sits on the pristine, palm tree-dotted beaches of the Atlantic Ocean in Brufut. It had been grabbed by Jammeh from Sheraton, along with another hotel, Coco Beach.

"He owned everything. Every big establishment was his," said Bubacar Ndow, our tour guide as we drove around Serrekunda, a sprawling urban centre at the coast.

Gambians had been ruled by Jammeh for 22 years; he had killed, imprisoned or exiled his political opponents. Now, under President Barrow, citizens say they have the freedom to air their views.

"We believe he will deliver on the political and economic reforms. We are optimistic. He still needs time, but most importantly we can speak our minds and do what we want. That freedom is what we needed," said Pa Bojang, an army veteran who was our security guard and tour guide.

The newspaper headlines tell of former Jammeh officials facing a commission of inquiry on alleged corruption and illegal dealings.

As we move around the busy Serrekunda market under the scorching sun, sifting through piles of goods, mainly imitations from China, an Economic Community of West African States patrol car with armed men drives by slowly, perhaps to reassure Gambians that Jammeh is now history.

Many still feel the former president, currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea, should be extradited and charged in court or shipped to the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity.

"He denied us every right, including education," said Housna Saine, a 24-year old who sells sim cards and airtime along the Serrekunda market road.

Gambia

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