On Saturday, Yahya Jammeh boarded a private jet with a smile on his face. Holding a Quran in one hand, the former president of The Gambia waved at a group of about 50 well-wishers who had gathered on the tarmac.
Outside Banjul airport, the streets of the administrative capital were quiet. Fearing violence and unrest, many residents had left the city – either for rural towns elsewhere in the country or for neighbouring Senegal. But on the beaches on the Senegambia strip and in the Westfield district inside the Serrekunda suburb, some 13km from the capital, thousands were on the streets celebrating a new political dawn.
The president who had run their nation for more than 22 years had finally accepted defeat and left the country, heading for Equatorial Guinea. A painful chapter in West African history had closed. And many Gambians could hardly believe it.
“Two things come to my mind when I think of Jammeh’s 22-year rule: Fear and repression,” says Sait Mait Jaw, a history lecturer and activist.
“A lot of people have disappeared, [been] tortured and forced into exile. Gambians under Jammeh were like people with a mouth but no tongue. We could not share how we felt about the regime openly or even when with friends,” says Jaw, who was one of the thousands of Gambians who spent time in jail without charge under Jammeh.
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Nyillan Fye, an entrepreneur who lives in Banjul, describes Jammeh’s ousting as being like “a veil lifting” over the the nation’s psyche.
“Now that the torture has finally ended, I can say Gambians are both excited and even more hopeful of this new beginning,” she says.
Shortly after the results of December’s election came in – showing that opposition leader Adama Barrow had won – Jammeh accepted defeat. But the incumbent went back on his decision on December 9, when Barrow suggested that Jammeh would be tried at the International Criminal Court for crimes committed during his presidency.
His refusal to step aside brought the country to the brink of war, when the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, deployed 7,000 troops on December 29, to force his hand.
Fearing the worst, almost 50,000 people fled to the border regions of neighbouring Senegal.
With his political allies abandoning him and the country’s army chief announcing that Gambia’s 2,500 soldiers would not face-off with the ECOWAS troops Jammeh conceded, and chose exile. In return, ECOWAS offered him amnesty and treatment befitting of a former head of state.
As he departed, however, Gambians had to confront the mess he had left behind.
We are starting this country from scratch
The new administration allege that he looted government coffers to the tune of $11m before leaving.
“We still are not sure how much he took, but he definitely took something, because he has always treated this country as his personal property,” Fatou Juka Darboe, 22, a youth and gender activist from Banjul, speculates.
“We are starting this country from scratch,” adds Darboe, who is cofounder and director of operations of the Gambian chapter of the Give1 Project, a youth activism and empowerment initiative.
Human rights activists, opposition leaders and journalists have long accused Jammeh of a list of abuses. These include torture, enforced disappearances, stifling the media and banning opposition parties and their leaders.
In 2014, two UN special rapporteurs said torture was a “consistent practice” in the country and that “avoiding arrest is a necessary preoccupation” for ordinary Gambians.
Jammeh monopolised power, and purportedly favoured his own tribe, the Yola, while threatening the country’s largest ethnic group, the Mandinka, with extermination. In 2016, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide condemned Jammeh, calling his threats “irresponsible” and “extremely dangerous”.
Jammeh also interfered with healthcare, suggesting that herbs could solve asthma and HIV, and even instructing HIV-positive patients to stop their antiretroviral therapy. In 2007, when Fadzai Gwaradzimba, the UN Development Programme’s country director for The Gambia, expressed concern over this, she was expelled.
In 2008, he advised homosexuals to leave the country or risk decapitation. In 2014, he said he would slit the throats of gay men. His government also passed a law during 2014 that stipulated life sentences for the LGBTQ community.
“He created a vicious atmosphere that left people living in a perpetual state of fear,” says Ousmane Sene, director of the West African research centre in Dakar.
Although Jammeh’s government was seen as progressive when it came to women’s rights, banning female genital mutilation in 2015 and imposing lengthy sentences for the husbands of child-brides, these moves were seen as mere mementos in a larger story of cruelty.
Jaw says Jammeh leaves behind a mixed legacy. On the one hand he tortured Gambians and was arguably one of the worst leaders in the country’s history, he explains.
“On the other, he will be remembered for bringing university education to the door steps of ordinary Gambians. He will also be remembered for the roads and the infrastructure. Nonetheless, all these goods have been overshadowed by the numerous human rights violation and the lack of freedom under his regime.”
Sene agrees. “You can’t say you are empowering women when you are terrifying the entire society. People are more interested in safety, food and a place to sleep at night,” the political analyst says.
As part of a group that called themselves the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, then 29-year-old Jammeh took over the country in a coup during the summer of 1994.
The coup was supported by opposition leaders and the majority of young people as the new leader promised to end the abuse of power and corruption that had dogged the country since its independence in 1965. He promised to recover stolen assets and to improve gender equality and education.
“We are not here to stay for long. We are here to create a just system and to put up structures that would ensure that what happened in the past 30 years, will never happen again,” Jammeh said shortly after
But his position soon began to change.
, there was all this hope in this young man consolidating the country, but then he turned out to be a lunatic”]
Initially, he delayed the return to civilian rule. And when he finally did act in September 1996, he banned political parties and opposition politicians. Then he targeted the media, closing radio stations and intimidating journalists.
“The president, who is not freely elected, exercises most control over decision-making, and government operations in general are opaque,” Freedom House, the US-based organisation monitoring freedom of expression and democracy around the globe, wrotein a 2015 report.
Many Gambians attempted to flee. In fact, according to the International Office of Migration The Gambia was the country with the fifth highest number of its citizens arriving in Italy by sea in 2016. And this despite the fact that it has a population of fewer than two million.
Per capita, no other nationality has made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean more often than Gambians.
“I remember how people were excited when he took over, there was all this hope in this young man consolidating the country, but then he turned out to be a lunatic,” Sene says.
The Gambia has long been fraught with deep social and economic inequality. According to the UN, more than 60 percent of its people live in poverty, including a third who live on less than $1.25 a day.
“He has left behind a bankrupt country … the economy is in tatters,” says Senegalese political analyst Yoro Dia.
President Barrow now faces a daunting task. On Monday, he addressed journalists in Dakar, promising to reunite the country. Gambians had waited too long for change, he said.
“We shall together do this in order to redeem the good image of the country and move it to greater heights,” Barrow told them.
Sabrina Mahtani, Amnesty International’s West Africa researcher, said in a statement following Barrow’s inauguration that her organisation would be keeping an eye on whether the new administration’s “big promises” are fulfilled.
Among those promises is the freeing of political prisoners, the removal of repressive laws that target freedom of expression and dissent and to rejoin the International Criminal Court. He also said he would set up a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate the crimes of the former government.
Babou Njie Sallah, a Gambian political activist based in the UK, says he is confident that Barrow will keep his promises.
“He is with a very competent, reliable and honest team who all have one common interest, which is to see the success of Gambia.”
But, he adds, “It will take some time to rebuild our country after all the damage that has been done in the past 22 years.”
For others like Darboe, the country’s future is bigger than the new president. “Everyone is excited. We all know we made this change, and so its up to all of us to get involved.”
Still, concerns remain.
Jammeh’s tribalism fractured Gambian society along ethnic lines and that may take time to heal. And his departure means that justice is unlikely to be served for the thousands of Gambians who suffered under his rule.
“The biggest challenge [for the new administration] would be to institutionalise democracy in the country … to send a message that democracy needs participation of all Gambians, no matter who they vote
for,” says David Zounmenou, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies, based in Pretoria, South Africa.
Sene believes that focusing on national reconciliation should be the new president’s first priority.
“More than anything else, the new president needs to allow people to feel as if they can speak freely … this is part of political development,” Sene reflects.