What is next for Africa’s newest democracy?
I never visited The Gambia under its former ruler, Yahya Jammeh.
I tried to get in through the Senegal-Gambia land border when there was a coup attempt against him. I was questioned for two hours by security services and literally pushed back to the Senegal side of the border.
During last year’s presidential election, our producer and I wrote a letter asking to cover the campaign, but Al Jazeera had been singled out. We were again not allowed into the country.
Later, close aides told me Jammeh, who ruled The Gambia for more than two decades, held a personal grudge against me. I was told he wanted me dead because I did a story about a rapper who described Jammeh as the biggest gangster of them all.
I will never forget the day I boarded a plane in February that would take me to the capital, Banjul, for the first time. It was to cover the inauguration of the new president, Adama Barrow.
On the plane were hundreds of Gambians who had been forced into exile, some for decades. Some came from the the United States; others from Sweden, Germany and the UK.
They were now returning home, full of hope and excitement. Jammeh was gone and democracy was back. The new president and his government offered one promise: change.
The one fundamental change in The Gambia is freedom. Freedom to express oneself, freedom to criticise the government, freedom to return to one’s country.
It is those that have experienced the loss of freedom – those that have been thrown into exile or forced migration – that understand the true value of freedom. It’s something the Gambian people truly understand.
Never has this been so apparent than in this parliamentary election, with 239 candidates vying for just 53 seats. Gambians don’t just want to participate in the democratic process, they want to be the decision makers of their country.
This is a people who peacefully overthrew a ruler who clung onto power for 22 years through the ballot box. During what some describe as a revolution, not a single shot was fired, no one was hurt or wounded. Gambians peacefully took over their country’s destiny. Now in this parliamentary election they have chance to decide on issues that matter to them.
For many these needs are basic: access to electricity or free education, more doctors in rural villages, help to reboot the tourism industry that’s so important to The Gambia’s economy.
One candidate told me members of the parliament would in the past allocate 80 percent of the national budget directly to the office of the presidency.
“This has to stop,” she says.
There is a sense of ownership over the country’s future from Gambians themselves that is unprecedented.
Yet, there are some who were left out by the revolution.
Among the voters there are those that still support Jammeh and his political party, the APRC. The Gambia is made up of several ethnic groups, but Jammeh stoked distrust among them as a means of gaining political power. Jammeh long supported the Djola ethnic minority, and APRC supporters accuse the government of supporting the other main group, the Mandinka.
The coalition of political parties that united to bring an end to Jammeh deny fomenting ethnic divisions. The coalition is now splitting, each presenting their own candidate.
All of this will make for a lively parliament; a forum where those who agree to disagree will use the floor of the national assembly to debate ideas.
The elation of this newfound freedom and democracy is intoxicating – it’s a feeling that I saw time and again on the campaign trail.
It will be the first free and fair election for many young Gambians who have so far only experienced a virtual one-party rule. It’s now up to them to decide, through the ballot box.
The Gambia may be a small country but it is a story that is important to us.
This time when I went to the embassy in Senegal to apply for a visa to cover the parliamentary election, the clerk who had refused my visa requests time and time again finally smiled back, handed over my passport with a multiple entry one-year visa, and said welcome to The Gambia.
Change is coming fast to this small but vibrant West African nation.