Gambia's new president Adama Barrow returned to mass celebration in his homeland on Thursday after winning the country's presidential elections in December. Throngs of supporters in the streets and fighter jets overhead greeted the president amid the first democratic transition of power in the country's history. His election marks a moment of stability for the tiny West African country after 22 years under the thumb of dictator Yahya Jammeh.
Barrow had been forced to take the oath of office in neighboring Senegal after the rogue incumbent refused to relinquish his power. He was only allowed to return to Gambia after West African coalition forces invaded the country and forced Jammeh into exile in Equatorial Guinea, but not before he took $11 million from the government coffers and loaded several luxury cars onto his plane.
Take a look at Gambia's path towards democracy in the timeline below:
Initially, former President Jammeh conceded defeat after losing the election by a 3.7 percent margin. But the act was unnaturally gracious for the despot — a week later Jammeh contested the election results and called for a new election. Fabaraky Jammeh, a journalist with no relation to former President Jammeh, described a night of anxiety when the dictator refused defeat.
"People did not sleep because they knew there was going to be violence," the reporter said. "Every Gambian knew this was not going to be easy to swallow."
The defeated president was a former lieutenant trained in the United States who installed himself through a military coup in 1994, upending the presidency of Dawda Jawara, who had ruled since 1970. A deeply superstitious leader, Jammeh claimed he found an herbal cure for AIDS in 2007 and sent his 'Green Beret' forces to drug over 1000 villagers who he suspected were sorcerers.
Fabaraky Jammeh described life in under the dictator, who often engaged in serious human rights abuses of his people.
"Yahya Jammeh was a very divisive leader, a brutal leader. He has killed many people and ruled the Gambia with an iron fist. He does not allow a free press or media in the Gambia," Fabaraky Jammeh said. "He doesn't consult anybody, he just wakes up and does as he wishes. He disregards the constitution and he rules Gambia with fear. It's allowed him to rule Gambia for 22 years."
Fabaraky Jammeh spoke of two kidnapped Gambian-Americans who were 'picked up' — the local term for kidnappings — by former President Jammeh's secret forces. Alhagie Ceesay, an infrastructure systems analyst, and Ebou Jobe, a Walmart operations manager, left their native Gambia to study at the University of Washington. The two were living in the U.S. for over a decade and had become naturalized citizens. In 2013, they decided to go back to Gambia to open a cashew business. Ceesay and Jobe went missing weeks later.
According to witness accounts, the pair had been picked up by the Junguler, Jammeh's private paramilitary force. Political dissenters claim the government harbored suspicions that the Ceesay and Jobe were planning a coup. Though the government has denied any role in their disappearance, Fabaraky Jammeh isn't convinced since many prisoners under the former president have been given clemency by the newly-elected Barrow.
"The new government has started releasing prisoners," he said, "but still nobody knows where they are, so we have to presume they are dead."
But the new regime promises a positive turnaround in the government's role in Gambian society. Adama Barrow, who has been described as the opposite of Jammeh, was relatively unknown to most Gambians before the election. The 52-year-old former security guard became a real estate mogul in the country and was appointed the treasurer of the United Democratic Party, only rising to prominence when a power vacuum opened in the UDP. Then-party leader Ousainou Darboe was thrown in jail for protesting the 2016 killing of activist Solo Sandeng, who died at the hands of Yahya Jammeh's police forces. Darboe's detention would have left President Jammeh without serious opposition in the December election.
Instead, another senior UDP party member, Fatoumata Tambajang, worked tirelessly to form a political coalition in Gambia with Barrow at the helm. The coalition of seven parties won a 43.3 percent plurality in the election and saw the release of 19 opposition prisoners, including Ousainou Darboe. Tambajang was appointed to the vice presidency on Tuesday after an association of surrounding states, ECOWAS, successfully drove the Former President Yahya Jammeh into exile.
ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, was a key player in Gambia's successful transition. The regional power bloc of 15 nations has acted as a guardian over democratic processes in the area, and at first negotiated with former President Jammeh on behalf of the president-elect. When it became clear that Jammeh would not step down unless impossible conditions were met, the coalition initiated a military intervention.
Tyson Roberts, a USC political science professor and expert on West African countries, characterizes ECOWAS as one of the most successful associations on the continent. Though its main mission is economic, it enforces its own rules on democracy. Previously, it insisted that Togo hold elections instead of passing power from father to son, and talked down a military coup in Burkina Faso. Gambia is one of the last member countries to go through a democratic transition, something which Roberts argues is a sign that it is finally "falling in with [its] own little group."
Gambia's transition comes at a time when many African nations backslide into autocracy. While the southern tip of the continent has found stability in its own trading bloc, the Southern African Customs Union, countries in the central and eastern parts of the continent are still seeing serious repressions on the people.
Recently, Ethiopians have seen the government ban social media and news websites to hush dissent, while security forces in Gabon cracked down on post-election protests. Achieving continent-wide freedom is currently a distant hope, but Roberts says the visibility of Gambia's transition could only help democracy to bloom elsewhere on the continent.
"Some states are going backward," he said. "The fact that Gambia is going forward, it's like 'okay there's some hope' that some African countries are moving in, quote unquote, the right direction, towards democracy."