Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh must be watching with a glee in exile in Equatorial Guinea as events unfold back home.
Jammeh in July caused a stir when he suggested, via a leaked telephone conversation, that Gambians would soon regret ousting him. At the time, many wondered what he had up his sleeves, given the acrimonious circumstance under which he left office.
But for many Gambians, there is now little doubt about the meaning of that statement. In just 22 months in office, the coalition government which plotted Jammeh's ousting is in disarray.
Disappointment and betrayal are among the most trending words in Gambian political discussion these days. Many of the original eight-member coalition parties represented in the cabinet have either been sacked or relegated to some insignificant advisory role.
An unlikely quarter
The persistent topic whether President Adama Barrow should serve three or five years has resurfaced. This time, bizarrely, the calls are coming from an unlikely quarter, supporters of his United Democratic Party (UDP), under whose ticket he was unexpectedly elected.
Banjul and Serekunda, the two most politically important cities in the country, have become the scenes of recurrent protests and threats of more protests by an ever increasing crop of dissatisfied Gambians who say the government has failed to live up to expectation.
Barrow’s election on December 1, 2016 was historic in many ways. It was the first time Gambia – the smallest nation in mainland Africa – changed government through democratic means, even if the chaotic transition tainted that record. And that change, led by a virtually unknown figure, ended the reign of one of the most brutal regimes on the continent.
Jammeh first came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994. Like in many African countries where the military removed overstaying governments in the face of rampant corruption and underdevelopment, many Gambians supported the former army lieutenant at the initial stage. But he soon attracted criticism when he decided to remove his military uniform and contest the presidency.
Against growing opposition, Jammeh soon began ignoring the constitution. Victims of human rights abuses piled up, amidst reports of extra-judicial killings, and even more widespread corruption. Throughout this period – spanning 22 years – the opposition tried to oust him in five elections; they were held back by sharp divisions.
So, when Gambians voted for change on that December 1, it was an expression of protest against Jammeh, and not necessarily support for the opposition, said Serekunda resident Dawda Kujabi.
Mr Kujabi represents the views of many young Gambians who initially supported the coalition government and who have grown disillusioned over its unresponsiveness.
“The government lacks direction and [has] failed to identify priority areas of intervention and as such they are not making any meaningful impact in improving the livelihood of the people,” he said.
One undeniable benefit of the change though is the restoration of civil liberties, as seen in the open discussions of the failings of the government.
The brewing public anger against the Barrow administration has been exacerbated by a noticeable pattern of scandals around the Presidency, as well as the government’s increasing penchant for ignoring citizens’ demand for explanations.
It started with the widely reported anonymous donation of 55 vehicles to the government, just weeks after the president was sworn into office. Up to now, no convincing explanation has been provided for the act which provoked widespread agitation among accountability campaigners.
Recently, some $1 million was discovered in a bank account linked to a private Foundation of First Lady Fatou Bah-Barrow. The money was deposited by a Chinese company. Despite a huge public outcry and an ongoing social media campaign for an explanation, both the Presidency and the Frist Lady’s office remain mute.
The most recent scandal is the alleged attempt by President Barrow to bribe lawmakers as part of a suspected move to extend his stay in office, against a gentleman’s agreement with his coalition partners. Like his predecessor, President Barrow’s greatest critics are the diaspora Gambians.
A leading voice among these is Mr Banka Manneh. While admitting to the president’s democratic credentials, unlike his predecessor, the US-based activist says President Barrow was failing due to his apparent inability to manage expectations.
“We finally have respect [for] human rights, but the economic condition is appalling,” he said.
Mr Manneh is particularly concerned about the “wasteful spending” which he thought had ended with the removal of Jammeh. He also said the slow pace of “fundamental reforms” needed to consolidate the country’s democracy meant that Gambia was still living in the Jammeh-era.
Besides the highly trumpeted line of respect for civil liberties, President Barrow’s supporters point to a handful of other actions in defence of his record, including the removal of taxes on some imported foodstuff as a response to the high cost of living that has characterised the post-Jammeh era. There was also a noticeable independence of the judiciary and other formerly highly politicised government institutions. They also say he has opened up the media space as evidenced by the unprecedented issuance of TV and radio licences.
Jammeh refused to approve any private TV licence, so that throughout his reign, only his government’s narrative was forced on the people through the state-owned GRTS. Today, there were already two privately run TV stations, plus several online ones. There has also been some infrastructural development across the country.
More recently, the administration announced a cut in government expenditure with the restriction of foreign travels by officials. But all these have been dwarfed by the seemingly endless complaints from critics who say instead of fixing the wrongs of his predecessor, President Barrow was busy consolidating his hold on power, using the very system the ex-dictator left behind.
The decision to slam travel restriction on government officials came hot on the heels of an uproar against the “extravagant” cost of flying the president to the US to attend the UN General Assembly. According to reports, the government hired a Vista Jet plane which cost taxpayers between $17,000 and $24,000 per hour.
In September, the Ministry of Finance provided parliament with a summary of travel expenditure by various government entities from January-July. It revealed that the Presidency alone consumed about $4.6 million. President Barrow was later quoted saying that the amount was less than what other countries paid for travels by their presidents.
Earlier in July, the Presidency came under another attack after it emerged that the ‘President’s Dialogue Tour’ which lasted two weeks, cost the country about $500,000.
Gambia, with a population of 2.1 million, according to a United Nations estimate in 2017, is a predominantly agrarian economy with peanut as its main export crop. The country is best known internationally for its tourism potential, with the sector accounting for about 20 percent of GDP, behind agriculture with about 30 percent.
Like many African countries, Gambia sources majority of its budget from foreign aid.
The hallmark of Jammeh’s dictatorship was the 1997 constitution, which his APRC-dominated parliament manipulated to provide him the leeway for many of his actions in his two-decade reign, from draconian media laws, to biased electoral regulations that targeted his political opponents.
While all those and many others featured in initial statements of the new president as potential subjects of reforms, recent actions of the government have cast doubt about the sincerity in fulfilling them. For instance, rights campaigners were still trying to come to terms with the warning by Justice minister Ba Tambedou, of the continued existence of the publication of false news as a criminal offence. The warning came amidst the debate on the president's alleged bribery attempt.
There was also a lot of unease over a suspicious bond between the president and former ‘enablers’ of the Jammeh administration. Two cabinet appointments in particular; Mr Momodou Tangara and Mamburay Njie, of Foreign Affairs and Finance respectively minister, who served in the same position under the former dictator, caused quite astir.
Banjul-based civil society activist and staunch Barrow critic Madi Jorbarteh, rates the performance of the administration at 3.5, on a scale of 10. Mr Jobarteh, who heads the UK-funded Westminster Foundation for Democracy in Gambia, said in June that President Barrow’s number one problem was his failure to fulfil promises of reforms. He noted that while the first republic under Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara (the man Jammeh overthrew) produced poverty, Jammeh further oppressed the people and weakened institutions.
Review the laws
Mr Jobarteh said the expectation was for the Barrow administration to implement constitutional, legal and institutional reforms.
“President Barrow promised that within six months he would review the laws, and one and half years later, it is still the same,” he lamented.
President Barrow’s critics blame his failure to deliver on his growing focus on his political future, which seems to have also created a rift within his own camp. His administration was supposed to be a transition one.
Despite their differences in ideologies, everyone agreed that under Jammeh there was no way a free and fair election could be held. So the idea was for the coalition president to set the stage for such. The candidate who emerged as winner was to resign from their party and run as independent candidate.
They also agreed that the president would serve for only three years and then conduct fresh elections, after presiding over the requisite reforms.
But the rest of the original team in the coalition says everything about President Barrow now suggested he was no longer interested in the agreement.
Some fear his increasing penchant for behaviour akin to his predecessor’s, like presenting state resources to institutions as his personal largesse, or the alleged extravagant life style of the First Lady.
Since part of the Coalition 2016 agreement was for the presidential candidate to resign from his original party, technically, President Barrow was no longer a member of the UDP. Nonetheless, the party appeared comfortable with all his gestures, until recently when it dawned on its members that he no longer represented their interests.
UDP is the biggest among the coalition member parties, with the largest number of seats in cabinet, and it also dominates parliament. Because of that, opponents of the Barrow administration see it as a UDP regime. And the party has always defended the president against attacks.
But in the last few months, this trend seems to have changed.
UDP leader and Vice-President Ousainou Darboe is on record vowing to go to court in the event anyone tried to implement the three year coalition agreement. But today, UDP supporters were leading calls for President Barrow to step down after three years.
The accusation of alleged attempted bribery of lawmakers was made by a UDP MP.
UDP supporters appear particularly unsettled about the formation of a movement widely seen as the vehicle President Barrow intends to use to pursue his future political career. The Barrow Youths Movements (BYM) reminds many of the Green Youths of his predecessor. Curiously, BYM is controlled by some of the people known to have been behind the Green Youths, notably former lawmaker Seedy Njie.
Although the appointment of Mr Darboe as Vice-President was interpreted by the government’s critics as part of a plot to rid the cabinet of all non-UDP members, some of the party’s supporters believe it was in fact a reflection of President Barrow’s plot for the future.
As Foreign minister, they say, Mr Darboe was the most influential member of cabinet, and that by appointing him VP, President Barrow literary stripped him of the opportunity to establish his credentials internationally.
But UDP spokesman Almamy Fanding Taal, insists that there was no problem between the party and the president. He says their position remains unchanged, despite the individual protests from its members.
UDP is scheduled to go to congress next month, when it is expected to elect a new executive. Whoever emerges as its leader, will serve as its presidential candidate.
President Barrow, no doubt, wants the leadership position. He was heard earlier this month in a leaked audio telling a party meeting that any attempt to sideline him by the UDP would amount to a coup.