Gambians get behind a movement to Barrow to his word

 

 

Gambians protest over President Adama Barrow’s decision to renege on his promise and govern for longer than three years.

The public backlash that Barrow is facing for failing to adhere to a memorandum of understanding by the coalition of parties that secured him the top job, spilled out on the streets of Banjul on December 16 2019. Not long ago, speaking out against a president was dangerous business in Gambia. Yet today many are determined to assert their right to hold Barrow accountable.

Gambia was thrown into a constitutional crisis in December 2016, after Barrow unexpectedly defeated Yahya Jammeh in presidential elections but the long-term strong man leader refused to step down. The dispute prompted the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), with the support of the United Nations, to prepare for a military intervention.

Barrow and the coalition of several political parties and civil society groups for which he had stood as an independent candidate made a deal to end the crisis however and on January 19 2017, Barrow with little political experience was sworn in as president in neighbouring Senegal. Days later, Jammeh fled into exile and Barrow returned home.

‘Changing the rules’

That coalition deal and Barrow’s refusal to adhere to its provision that he would serve three years as a transitional president before elections and not five years as afforded a president has led to a swelling civil backlash.

“The main concern is that Barrow is perceived to be changing the rules from within his coalition,” says Peter Penar, director of the Leaders of Africa institute and visiting assistant professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

“The present constitution of Gambia allows duly elected presidents to serve out their full term. Barrow emphasises this fact and constitutionally he is on fairly firm ground.”

As the three-year deadline drew near and the legality versus morality debate over Barrow’s tenure deal gained traction, a new grassroots movement dawned: “Three years jotna” which translates to “three years are up”.

“The premise of ‘Three years jotna’ is based on a promise made by then candidate Adama Barrow. It is of a moral rather than legal premise,” says Nyang Njie, an independent Banjul-based economist and political blogger. “The people behind ‘Three years jotna’ are saying that politicians in the new Gambia must be held to account.”

A handwritten letter to Barrow, in which the movement calls on him to leave office on  January 19, is to be handed over to authorities in Banjul at the December 16 protest.

A good president gone bad?

Njie believes that citizens in the post-dictatorship country are starting to assert their right to express divergent views without state interference. Dissent, let alone protest, was violently crushed during the Jammeh-era. Gambian student massacre of April 2000 arose after firefighters killed a student and a police officers rape of a schoolgirl sparked protests. (In both cases the government responded with a crackdown on the protesters).

“On social media there is much talk about a good president gone bad. This is certainly accurate,” says Penar. Many Gambians had high expectations when Barrow came to office. “The post-Jammeh agenda was and is still long.” The truth about human rights abuses and corruption under Jammeh needed to be uncovered; political prisoners needed to be rehabilitated, the economy had to be put on track.

“In many ways Barrow has made good on several promises. In particular, the truth commission has been educational and the economy is growing fairly well.”

There are some concerns over Gambia’s high debt and a lack of transparency surrounding the country’s financial practices, according to Penar. “Another important consideration is Barrow’s apparent interest in centralising power in the midst of a fluid and fragmented political party system.”

Personalised politics

Political analysts point to the three vice presidents Barrow has had and defections from other parties to his faction and the fragmented political landscape this has created. Barrow fired vice president Ousainou Darboe, who heads the United Democratic Party, the same party he quit in order to contest the 2016 election as an independent candidate for the coalition.

“The critical point is that politics is taking on a personalised character,” says Penar.

The Jammeh era was characterised by personalised politics. Barrow is seen to have invested very little in building a stable political party or in making the process of party-building in The Gambia easy. An Afrobarometer survey in 2018 showed however that 54% of Gambians trust their president – a high reservoir of support by African standards.

The question over Barrow’s tenure left him “compelled to engage in politics, rhetoric and divisive activities” rather than development and reforms, says Nyima Camara, a political science lecture at the University of Gambia. “The political space is very divided since the coalition started to disintegrate in 2017. The environment has been dominated by claims and counterclaims and intense rivalry among political party leaders with regard to the president.”

New culture of protest

Gambians don’t know yet what will ultimately happen. What has become apparent is that civil society is gaining strength, but not without teething problems. “Huge momentum gathered when ‘Three years jotna’ came out first but it seems as though their influence is dwindling a little. They are beginning to lose ground and divisions have emerged among them,” says Camara.

Many Gambians have followed the movement with deep scepticism. That the movement is being led by relatively unknown ordinary citizens without political or social clout is a problem for some of them. There is also concern that if Barrow were to step down after three years, a dangerous power vacuum would arise in period until elections are due.   

Barrow’s die-hard supporters simply dismiss the ‘Three years jotna’ movement. “The average Gambian doesn’t vote on a rational, issue-driven proposition package or program but on sentiment of tribal affinity, social orientation or financial inducement,” says the Banjul-based blogger Nyang Njie.

For now, ‘Three years jotna’ is at the forefront of the grassroots groundswell the president is facing. Ahead of the protest, its supporters complained over the desolate strip of land between the capital’s Denton Bridge and Sting corner that was mapped out in the permit issued just six days in advance. There is no fear of repercussions in the vein of the Jammeh era, but “the culture of protest is still very new to Gambians,” says Njie.

“The majority of Gambians are not afraid that when they go out [to protest] something will happen to them but, I think, it’s more of being ashamed of being part of this,” says Njie. He believes its a question of reeducation, creating awareness and reorienting Gambians to understand that there is nothing wrong with protesting and there is nothing wrong with raising your voice, and there is nothing wrong with advocating for your beliefs and values.” — Deutsche Welle

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Benita Van Eyssen
Benita Van Eyssen
Benita Van Eyssen works from Germany. foreign correspondent/editor/native of nowhere Benita Van Eyssen has over 53 followers on Twitter.
Advertisting

Odd drop in how Covid-19 numbers grow

As the country hunkers down for a second week of lockdown, how reliable is the data available and will it enable a sound decision for whether South Africans can leave their homes on April 16?

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders