Adama Barrow: how do you solve a problem like The Gambia?
Six months ago, businessman and political novice Adama Barrow took power in Africa’s smallest mainland country after delivering a stunning defeat against ex-leader Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled brutally for 22 years.
When Barrow finally took power in The Gambia in late January after a prolonged political crisis, the euphoria soon turned to grim recognition that Jammeh had more or less cleaned out the nation’s coffers before leaving for exile in Equatorial Guinea, he tells AFP in an interview.
“We inherited an economy that was virtually empty,” Barrow recalls. “With one month import cover — and that is very, very serious — our domestic and foreign debt was at highest level.”
The European Union and World Bank swooped in to help the new administration to the tune of $56 million — just $6 million more than the government now accuses Jammeh of stealing by diverting funds intended for national telecoms into his own accounts.
Barrow says the nation can now cover its import costs — a key measure of economic health — for three months, that food prices are down, and that investors spooked by Jammeh’s tendency to announce herbal cures for AIDS, among other things, are showing strong interest.
“There is a lot of goodwill from around the world. And they have expressed interest in doing business with The Gambia,” he says, looking relaxed in a traditional west African “boubou” tunic coloured a bright turquoise.
“Not just the Chinese and (former colonisers) the British, but Dubai, and others like the French,” Barrow says. “It is now up to The Gambia to make the best out of these.”
He also notes an interest in opening up the nascent mining sector.
Jammeh to ‘face justice’
A former real estate agent and developer, Barrow, a physically imposing but softly-spoken father of four, is most at ease talking business, enthusiastically discussing the development of Banjul’s long neglected port and an expired petroleum licence he wants to open up to new bidders.
But while Gambians desperately want job creation and infrastructure, the wounds of the past are fresh.
The families of those disappeared by Jammeh’s security services, beaten by his police or who had their businesses seized want trials, and quickly.
“(Jammeh) was the head of everything: atrocities, wealth, everything. We will investigate it all,” Barrow insists.
But how would he extract Jammeh from Equatorial Guinea — a notoriously secretive nation that is not a member of the International Criminal Court?
“There are people who committed atrocities and faced justice. They were extradited to face justice. It can also happen with Jammeh,” Barrow maintains, placing his faith in commissions overseen by a justice minister who served on the Rwanda genocide tribunal.
The president has ordered one commission to look into Jammeh and his associates’ embezzlement of state funds, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission should begin holding hearings into crimes committed by the security forces by the end of the year.
These two bodies are aimed at healing the nation, but also paving the way for future legal cases.
Barrow says he is rather bored of hearing that his life and the security of The Gambia are at risk.
“There are reports that people are coming to attack The Gambia, these are hugely exaggerated,” he says, though a west African military force remains on the ground until the Gambian army is deemed “reformed” from the Jammeh days.
There is “a lot” to do in that area, he adds, and extraditing former “Jungulars” — members of Jammeh’s death squad — requires collaboration with nearby Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, where they are believed to be hiding.
– Looking to the future –
The Gambia, population two million, has had the sad distinction for the last few years of sending the most people per capita across the Sahara and onto the rickety boats that ply the migrant route to Italy.
Too many, like the talented goalkeeper of the women’s national football team, drown along the way.
“Youths are risking this journey to Europe. You cannot blame them. They get frustrated to a level that they cannot do anything,” Barrow admits, as a onetime security guard in London himself.
“This migration issue is not a Gambian problem only. It is the whole world,” he says, saying the West and even multinational firms have a role to play in its prevention.
His own ideas to solve the crisis flow readily. “We have a lot of plans for the youths including the ports, that will engage a lot of youths, once transformed into a 24-hour service.”
Poultry farming and horticulture are also areas of potential growth, he believes.
After all, he notes, “I am not a politician, but a businessman.”