By Lady Kira Dalton
Well! It certainly has been a roller coaster ride these past few months. There is seldom a dull moment here in Gambia anyway but this year has truly been exceptional and very exciting.
For those who don’t follow African news closely, there was a Presidential Election held on the 1st December 2016. Much to everyone’s amazement, Sheikh Professor Alhajie Dr. Yahya A.J.J Jammeh Babili Mansa, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since taking over in a bloodless coup twenty-two years ago, LOST to a coalition of eight other parties, headed by a total newcomer called Adama Barrow.
That evening, Jammeh duly congratulated Barrow and conceded defeat on national TV. There was dancing in the streets and much jubilation for a whole week! To say that people were ready for change would be a massive understatement.
The exact details of Jammeh's greed and abuse of power are only just beginning to emerge and there is already talk of either a truth and reconciliation committee or international criminal court proceedings against him. Today one of his henchmen, Interior Minister Sonko, was arrested in Switzerland.
On the evening of 9th December, Jammeh returned to our TV screens to declare the elections null and void and to demand a rerun. His announcement was met with shock, horror and near universal worldwide condemnation. Country after country announced that they would no longer recognize him.
Nevertheless, he endeavored to cling to power through the Supreme Court (which had insufficient judges to hear his case since he sacked most of them years ago), National Assembly who declared a state of emergency to extend his term by three months and the threat of armed enforcement of his wishes.
Radio stations were closed down, people were arrested for wearing opposition T-shirts and known dissenters within the army and police were locked up by the National Intelligence Agency.
As the date for the inauguration of Adama Barrow approached, things got very tense indeed. The African Union and the Economic Union of West African States, having attempted several negotiations with Jammeh, realised that he was becoming more and more entrenched in his views. So they and the U.N. authorised a military force, which was poised to dislodge him if he did not leave of his own accord.
Over 46,000 Gambian's and many more Senegalese, Nigerians and Guineans left the country. Many others fled to the provinces away from Banjul. Thomas Cook and Gambia Experience evacuated nearly 5,000 British tourists when the FCO issued a warning of imminent military action on the 17th. A similar number of Dutch were flown out by TUI and Caradon on the 19th and 20th January.
President elect Barrow was also flown out for his own safety, first to an AU meeting in Mali and then kept abroad to be inaugurated at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal on the 19th January.
That day was the final deadline given for Jammeh to leave. He did not, instead requesting further talks and stalling in any manner possible. Those of us still here witnessed many reconnaissance flights overhead by the Nigerian Airforce, and streams of heavily armoured vehicles laden with Senegalese, Nigerian and Ghanaian peace keepers drove past our front doors heading for Banjul.
The presidents of Mauritania and Guinea, who were the last-ditch negotiating committee, extended the deadline and halted the military advance temporarily to 4 pm the next day. Finally, at 12:45am on the 20th January 2017, Yahya Jammeh announced on GRTS TV that he would be standing down.
Even then, he kept everybody in suspense for almost another full day, before boarding a plane bound for Equitorial Guinea late in the evening of the 21st. Allegedly, he took with him a substantial sum of the nation's currency, luxury vehicles and anything else of value that could be removed from State House. We are told that his wife Zaineb had already made several trips with assorted valuables.
Subsequently, when ECOMIG troops were able to enter State House the following evening, they found that the air conditioning system had been loaded with poisonous gas, furniture and carpets had been looted and there was a small armoury of weapons which had gone missing. It is believed that there are still numerous members of the presidential guard, and up to 2,000 mercenaries hired by Jammeh at large somewhere in the country. Peacekeeping troops will remain for up to six months to stabilise matters.
At last, today the 26th January, almost two months after the election date, our new President Adama Barrow has finally made a triumphant return to The Gambia.
The streets are once again lined with jubilant supporters and I can hear sirens, music, drumming and singing as I write. There will be another official celebration on Independence Day, February 18th.
Until then, there are huge expectations on the shoulders of the new government but no money and few resources left with which to achieve them. We all fervently hope that with help from the international community, this will be the start of a new era with vastly improved living conditions for the bulk of the population – rather than for the few at the top of the heap. Already Barrow's coalition has indicated that they will rejoin the ICC, perhaps the Commonwealth, and more generally forge close links with the world at large, in stark contrast to Jammeh's isolationism.
In the meantime, I am personally very relieved that this momentous transition took place with no bloodshed. So now, after weeks in limbo, we can all return to work/school/health centre.
There is still plenty to do here for a small but effective charity such as the African Oyster Trust.
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The news diary is written by a number of people close to the work of the African Oyster Trust, including founder James Holden, his co-directors, trustees and volunteers.