By Ebrima G. Sankareh, Editor-in-Chief
The place was The Gambia’s 25, 000 capacity Independence Stadium in the outskirts of Bakau, 8 miles off the island-capital, Banjul. The edifice built at a tune of 32 Million Gambian Dalasis and inaugurated in December,1984 was the highlight of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara’s development programme, albeit, incrementally. The occasion was the tiny West African nation’s 52 Independence Anniversary from British colonial rule and equally significantly, the official inauguration of the impoverished nation’s third President, Adama Barrow, since independence in 1965, making it the historic ever, peaceful transfer of power in Gambian politics.
Significantly, the last time Gambians witnessed a change of government was that fateful Friday, July 22, 1994 when a 29 year old army lieutenant, Yaya A.J.J. Jammeh, catapulted himself to the pinnacle of political power through a bloodless military coup d’état promising political miracles anchored in a Trinity–transparency, accountability and probity; fanciful words that immediately eclipsed the landscape once power was consolidated amid a tsunami of draconian military decrees and edicts that hijacked The Gambia’s once oasis of a democracy. For the next 22 years, The Gambia’s self-proclaimed political messiah, Yaya Jammeh, and his military junta—Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) became a perfect personification of evil, arresting, killing, detaining, disappearing and torturing innocent citizens mostly political enemies—real, imagined or potential.
An ecstatic Adama Barrow under heavy Senegalese military escort, taps his sparkling wristwatch in his campaign style signature, warning rival, Yaya Jammeh, that his time was up to relinquish power.
It was against this dark backdrop that a hopeful, 52 year-old Adama Barrow, who like his predecessor is a child of independence, or a Midnight Child, to paraphrase the famed Oriental writer, Salman Rushdie, addressed his fellow countrymen in a spectacular ceremony graced by several African Heads of state and world dignitaries. Most notable among the dignitaries were Liberia’s President and ECOWAS Authority Chairwoman, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and Senegalese President, Macky Sall, two leaders who in concert with Nigeria’s leader Muhammadou Buhari, forced Jammeh into exile to Equatorial Guinea in the wake of an impasse that consigned The Gambia to the edge of catastrophe.
In a gruelling 20-minute speech, Adama Barrow thanked Gambian electorate for their peaceful and nonviolent conduct during the last presidential election and the confidence bestowed on him. Similarly, Barrow acknowledged Gambians in the Diaspora for their limitless commitment to ending tyranny as well as their families back home whom they appealed to and pressured to vote for him and his eight-party Coalition.
Victory for Democracy
Reflecting on the past two decades and the month-long impasse caused by his predecessor’s recalcitrance that occasioned the displacement of several thousand Gambians, sent him into a brief exile in Dakar, scaling down of diplomatic missions and the attendant economic and psychological hardships, a visibly emotional Mr. Barrow, hailed his victory as “a victory for Democracy” adding: “Democracy has a meaning to our people. The Gambia has changed forever. The people are fully conscious (and) no government can be able to entrench itself against the will of the people.”
Healthcare, Social Welfare & Education Reforms
Predictably, given The Gambia’s dismal healthcare system and an ambitious yet dysfunctional education system, Adama Barrow wasted no time in announcing his plans to fix these key areas. He promised to undertake an inventory of the entire healthcare structure with a view to modernising it and significantly reducing infant mortality. Central to Barrow’s Healthcare agenda, is a vibrant and functional Primary Healthcare System instead of Jammeh’s numerous white elephant hospitals that are either without doctors or where they do, they lack basic equipment and drugs.
The Gambia’s new leader also envisaged a free and compulsory Basic Education for all Gambians; one that promotes access and relevance; key categories that despite repeated promises and political speeches to attract donor dollar, have been almost, always absent in Gambian curricula. In the last decade of Jammeh’s regime, Gambian students have been progressively failing their West African School Leaving Certificate Examinations in record numbers and one former Education minister, was sacked after she acquiesced that the PPP government had better examinations results than theirs.
President Barrow also promised to promote agriculture, food security and growth and harness the potentials for oil production, mining, river transportation and a reliable electric supply to both rural and urban Gambians in a transparent and accountable manner. Barrow’s promised transparency will be a revolutionary departure from his predecessor who, for almost a decade, has been busy mining resources in the Sanyang areas that only him and his close associates know and despite numerous efforts to tell Gambians what was mined, Jammeh couldn’t just give a damn.
Crucially, it also remains to be seen how far the promise to fix Gambia’s sporadic electricity supply will go. Since independence in 1965, The Gambia cannot still boost of reliable electricity supply. The forerunner to NAWEC was Gambia Utilities Corporation (GUC) under Jawara’s PPP; an institution that was so corrupt, malfeasant and dysfunctional that Gambians sarcastically nicknamed it: Gambia Useless Corporation. In the end, it was privatised under world Bank/IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes and 22 years later, its successor, NAWEC, remains a disaster that is felt everywhere especially, in operation theatres across the country and perhaps, only the fabled gods of Bakau Katchikali know exactly, how many babies have died and continue to die at birth in delivery rooms because of NAWEC’s constant power shutdowns.
Arguably, If Gambians were a litigious lot, both GUC and NAWEC would have filed bankruptcy because of preventable infant deaths at delivery rooms due to power cuts.
Ministry of Information to Undertake Media Reforms
Adama Barrow also promised that his government will through the parent Ministry of Information, spearhead the review of laws governing the public and private media. Specifically, he called for the “reorientation of the public media” which is a welcome development because in both Jawara and Jammeh’s regimes, the state broadcaster remained under state monopoly. In Yaya Jammeh’s regime, both radio and TV became the personal properties of the President and people who spent a lifetime at Radio Gambia with impressive graduate degrees were sacked and replaced by high school graduates whose only qualifications were either their well-known sexual liaisons or ethnic affiliations with Yaya Jammeh. Am sorry but there is no other way to say it! If not, why replace the legendary broadcaster, Bora Mboge, with Modou Sanyang?
Will Adama Barrow reform GRTS as promised? We are watching! In the same speech at the Independence Stadium Saturday, Adama Barrow said, in his government, “appointment to the Civil Service is to merit and income to performance.” Risking monotony, I am obliged to repeat this statement viz: “appointment to the Civil Service is to merit and income to performance.” It’s gratifying to note that under Barrow “Regional appointments will also be merit-based and not political” as in the past.
Besides reforming GRTS, Gambians welcome the news to review the country’s disastrous media laws that were carefully legislated to silence journalists. The chilling finality of journalist Deyda Hydara in the hands of Jammeh’s team of assassins, highlights his regime’s predacious posture against press freedom and fixing this sham, is most urgent. Equally urgent, is bringing the culprits to book!
New Ministry of Planning & Good Governance
Dwelling on his government’s preparedness to reform The Gambia’s utterly decadent Civil Service (my words), improve performance and build a solid foundation for socio-economic development, Mr. Barrow reiterated the importance he attaches to the newly formed Agency For Sustainable Socio-Economic Development (ASSED), calling it “an expert bank.” According to Barrow, “The Ministry of Planning and Good Governance is to be established to facilitate and monitor the implementation of the blueprint” provided by ASSED.
Lest we forget, the PPP regime of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara once had a Ministry of Economic Planning and Industrial Development (MEPID) that saw one development programme after another dwindle into economic fiasco. In the end, it was closed and merged with the Ministry of Finance & Trade, later to be renamed the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs. Let us hope that this time round, the new planning ministry will accomplish its aspirations of good governance and that ASSED will diligently vet all applicants and appointments ensuring that persons with most suitable qualifications are appointed to the positions announced.
Constitutional & Legal Reforms
According to Adama Barrow, his government will also embark on a series of constitutional and legal reforms that will protect fundamental rights and guarantee citizens equal protection under the law. He revealed ordering the release of all detainees whose cases were politically-motivated and most of whom were detained without ever facing trial or being charged. He announced the planned formation of a Human Rights Commission tasked with investigating the numerous violations and alleged atrocities committed under his predecessor. A National Council for Civic Education (NCCE) tasked with reconciliation and civic education matters will also be launched Barrow said. These institutions will be fully operational under a transparent system anchored in the spirit of the rule of law and an independent Judiciary where justice must not only be done, but must manifestly be seen to be done, he argued.
Senegalo-Gambian Relations, African Unity and Gambianity
Adama Barrow ended his speech with a powerful message that echoes the spirit of Senegambian geo-politics, history and culture, revealing that his first official visit will be to Senegal where he emotionally remembered, President Macky Sall’s enormous hospitality accorded not only him but to the thousands of Gambians who fled there as a recalcitrant Yaya Jammeh, threated political Armageddon. Mr. Barrow said foremost topics are the Senegambia bridge, border issues and integration matters such that the African continent will draw lessons on African integration from it.
Hammering home his message of National unity, an elated President Adama Barrow reminded Gambians that the bedrock of his 8-party Coalition Government was: “One Gambia, one nation and one people” and asked his countrymen to help him maintain this unanimity of purpose without which, tyranny could not have been defeated.
Crucially, given the complicated nature of the transfer of power from Jammeh to Barrow, the newly appointed Chief Justice, Justice Hassan Boubacarr Jallow had to administer President Barrow’s formal swearing in at the Independence Stadium under the glare of global TV cameras and amid thunderous applause from an ecstatic citizenry.