Gambia’s new leaders push for political prisoners’ release

Adama Barrow, / AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI

The Gambia’s President-elect Adama Barrow held talks with his team Saturday to plot his transition to power, with the release of political prisoners emerging as a top priority for the new administration.

Barrow’s shock election victory ended the iron-fisted 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh on Friday, and the scenes of jubilation on the streets after the results were released have given way to a calm but buoyant mood in the capital Banjul.

Jammeh’s rule over the tiny ex-British colony — which began with a coup in 1994 — was marked by frequent allegations of rights abuses and the regular arrests of politicians, journalists and activists, often on spurious charges.

Barrow, a businessman and political novice, met with the eight leaders who make up the coalition that sealed his remarkable rise to power in Thursday’s vote, with the talks focusing on the challenges facing the administration.

The talks went “very well, we are reflecting on the way forward,” said Isatou Touray, one of the leaders.

Touray said the release of political prisoners was the “most urgent” issue facing the new government, with expectations this could happen very soon.

“We are looking at next week,” she said.

The leader of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), of which Barrow is a former member, is appealing a three-year jail sentence he received with several other UDP officials for holding a peaceful protest in April.

– UN support sought –

Touray added the team expected the United Nations to play a key role in smoothing the transition that will see Barrow, a businessman who once worked as a security guard as an economic migrant in Britain, take office in mid-January.

“We will try to get the UN to give us support,” Touray told AFP by phone. “It is urgent, we need to have it as soon as possible.”

Ibn Chambas, the UN’s west Africa representative, said meetings with the opposition had been fruitful, raising expectations of a government that would reverse some of Jammeh’s policies that have isolated The Gambia internationally.

Barrow has pledged to rejoin the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth, both institutions which Jammeh railed against and withdrew from, to the dismay of many.

The UN envoy also said he was “willing to work with the Gambians to establish a truth and reconciliation commission”, but would not be drawn on whether Jammeh could face prosecution.

Allegations of rape, torture and execution at the hand of the National Intelligence Agency, which reports directly to Jammeh, have long tarred The Gambia’s image.

Barrow told French media Saturday that “we are not witch-hunting anybody, nothing is personal” when asked whether Jammeh would be prosecuted.

Due process would be followed, Barrow said, adding he had “no problem” with the outgoing president remaining in The Gambia.

The strongman’s whereabouts are currently unknown after Gambian television broadcast an unexpected statement to the nation in which he promised he would step down in line with voters’ wishes.

Jammeh congratulated Barrow late Friday for his “clear victory” in a jovial conversation that saw him joking about becoming a farmer in his hometown, with the exchange caught on film and broadcast.

It was a shock for many to see Jammeh, who had promised to bury critics “nine feet deep” and whose regime has prosecuted peaceful protesters, calmly accept defeat.

– ’22 years is enough’ –

After late-night victory parties held by many Gambians to celebrate Jammeh’s departure after Barrow swept 45 percent of the vote, life was returning to normal.

Sulayman Drammeh, a dock worker, summed up the mood: “We are very happy. Twenty-two years is enough,” he told AFP at a Banjul market.

“That’s why Africa has a problem — if you come to power, you don’t want to move. We are all Gambians, so let’s come together to work,” Drammeh added.

The coalition will govern for three years with Barrow as its figurehead, after which elections will be held and he will step down in line with a memorandum signed by all the parties involved.

“My party will continue but I’m not part of the process,” Barrow pledged to media Saturday when asked about the three-year commitment. “I’m a businessman, I’ll continue my business,” he added.

Greeting UN officials and working with the European Union on development plans will be a completely new experience for Barrow, who until Friday had never held office or even held a senior role within a political party.

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