The military intervention looked imminent. West African troops were poised to push into Gambia as Yahya Jammeh, the tiny nation’s leader for more than 22 years, refused to cede power after losing elections. President-elect Adama Barrow had flown to safety in neighboring Senegal, where he was sworn in at the Gambian embassy with international support.
Days later, Jammeh kissed his Quran, waved goodbye to teary-eyed supporters and boarded a plane with his family and dozens of allies, eventually landing in Equatorial Guinea and disappearing into silence.
In the year since the world marveled at a dictator’s fall, Gambia has risen from the shadows of Jammeh’s “rule of fear” with its arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
“Journalists can now freely conduct their work and human rights defenders can carry out their mandate without fearing persecution. The average Gambian is enjoying a lot of fundamental rights and freedoms he couldn’t expect under the previous government,” Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou told The Associated Press, calling it a “seismic shift.”
But he warned: “Let us remember that democracy is a continuum … it will take time to rebuild a country.”
Jammeh left the nation of 1.9 million people in shambles. Its stunted economy has forced many to flee toward Europe over the years. Jammeh’s face remains on the country’s banknotes.
Gambia’s new government inherited $1 billion in debt, Barrow has said, along with emptied coffers.
The government has seized some $50 million in assets tied to Jammeh and froze 131 properties and more than 80 bank accounts linked to the former leader.
At the same time, the international community has welcomed the change in government with new aid and investment. Barrow’s administration has made significant gains in restoring the confidence of partners such as the World Bank and African Development Bank.
The government and the International Islamic Trade Finance Corporation have signed a $210 million framework agreement aimed at boosting job creation and the energy and agricultural sectors. Among the European countries expressing new interest, Germany has committed to help Gambia solve its power crisis as frequent electricity shortages hamper development efforts.
Such steps enable the country to “graduate from isolation and collapsed economy to a vibrant destination for investors,” Barrow said in his televised New Year’s Eve address.
But economic change remains slow in the sliver of a country tucked between regional power Senegal and a stunning Atlantic coastline.
“The government should do its utmost best to reduce the price of the bag of rice and basic commodities,” said Aji Kumba Jeng, who lives outside the capital, Banjul, and called the cost of living still too high, with jobs scarce.
Gambia’s new government also has moved quickly in the past year to address abuses committed under the old administration. It cancelled the diplomatic passports of Jammeh and more than 200 other people, including his family members.
The government also renamed the National Intelligence Agency, known for carrying out killings and detentions ordered by Jammeh, and a trial against nine NIA officials has begun.
In December, the parliament endorsed two major bills to reshape the country’s institutions and pave the way for a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission and a much-awaited National Human Rights Commission.
Amadou Scattred Janneh of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations called the government’s moves “a step in the right direction.”
The center is leading a campaign aimed at bringing Jammeh and others to justice; a potential trial for the former leader would be years away.
Fatoumata Sandeng, the daughter of activist Solo Sandeng who was murdered in 2016 for demanding electoral reforms, said justice must prevail in all cases of abuses and welcomed Gambia’s recent moves.
But some said supporters of Jammeh cannot be left out of the country’s reforms.
Recent clashes with Jammeh’s party supporters have cast doubt on the reconciliation agenda, said Sait Matty Jaw, a political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia. In addition, divisions have formed within the government, which is made up of several former opposition parties.
“There is need for national dialogue where political parties, civil society groups, every sector of society have to come in and then we decide what would be the way forward,” he said.
Jammeh, who was sanctioned by the United States in December, has remained quiet in exile in Equatorial Guinea, a state that is not a party to the statue that created the International Criminal Court.
Earlier this week, Equatorial Guinea’s President Theodoro Obiang Nguema told Radio France Internationale that if Jammeh’s extradition is requested, “I will analyze it with my lawyers.”
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