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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Gambia football team's success symbol for country's post-dictatorship gains

Until a year ago, optimism was thin on the ground in this tiny west African nation. But in the months since Jammeh's ouster, democratic reforms are giving Gambians some reason to be hopeful for the future

Gambian president Adama Barrow has set about turning his country back into a democracy — a task that many a well-intentioned leader in similar circumstances before him has found harder than expected. Stephane de Sakutin / AFP
Gambian president Adama Barrow has set about turning his country back into a democracy — a task that many a well-intentioned leader in similar circumstances before him has found harder than expected. Stephane de Sakutin / AFP

In the days of Yahya Jammeh's tyrannical rule, running Gambia's top football club could be a frustrating business. No sooner had Banjul United won the national cup in 2014 then coach Omar Touray noticed that, one by one, his players were going missing. They weren't headed into victorious retirement, but taking the so-called "Back Way" — the perilous route across the Sahara and Mediterranean in search of a better life in the West.

The players knew they stood a good chance of receiving asylum in Europe, allowing them to join lower division European clubs and hope to eventually make their way up to the continent's lucrative premier leagues. In the end, nearly half of Mr Touray's cup-winning squad vanished, resulting in the team's demotion to Division Two the following season.

Now, however, a year on from Mr Jammeh's downfall, Banjul United are back at the top of Division One, the highest division, and this time Mr Touray is finding that his players are staying put.

"Today they can see a future by playing in Gambia," he told The National at his home in the capital, Banjul, near to where his team plays on a dusty training ground. "With the dictatorship gone, we are hoping investors will start putting money into the game here too. I tell the players that this is the new Gambia — anything can happen."

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Read more:

Jammeh departure leaves Gambians without justice

Newsmaker: Adama Barrow

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Until a year ago, such optimism was thin on the ground in Muslim-majority Gambia. Under Mr Jammeh, a witchcraft-practising despot, the tiny west African nation had stagnated for more than two decades.

Mr Jammeh jailed and murdered opponents, shut down independent newspapers and revelled in defiance of the outside world, withdrawing Gambia from what he deemed the "colonialist" Commonwealth and telling human rights critics to "go to hell". Many of his two million people bet their futures on the rickety people smugglers' boats going to Europe, on which Gambians were disproportionately represented.

That all changed in December 2016 when Mr Jammeh unexpectedly lost the presidential election to Adama Barrow, a little-known opposition figure who once worked as a security guard in London. Mr Jammeh tried to cling to power anyway, alleging vote-rigging, before being forced out by fellow west African leaders who threatened to send in troops if he didn't go peacefully. In a year where Brexit and the rise of US president Donald Trump had shaken the faith in democracy of many, Gambia appeared to tell a different story.

Since January, Mr Jammeh has been living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, while Mr Barrow has set about turning his country back into a democracy — a task that many a well-intentioned leader in similar circumstances before him has found harder than expected.

For Mr Barrow, it has meant reforming security services packed with Jammeh henchmen, reviving a sluggish economy and maintaining a ruling coalition whose only shared ground was hatred of Mr Jammeh. And all this in the glare of a newly-independent media, which, nowadays, is free to carp and criticise.

For now at least, fears that the new government might lapse into the same authoritarian habits as the old appear unfounded. It has not collapsed into infighting and there has been little sign of the feared backlash from Jammeh loyalists.

“The new government has made good progress overall, and has made genuine commitments around human rights and good governance”, one western official said.

One notable break with the past involves Gambia's national intelligence agency, which used to act as Mr Jammeh's own answer to the KGB. Ousman Sowe, the agency's newly-appointed director general, has even taken the rare step of touring the country to meet community leaders and tribal chiefs, telling them that the organisation's days of killing and torture are over. "We want to be an institution that has people's confidence," he said.

So far, however, much of the progress made by Mr Barrow has largely involved clearing up Mr Jammeh's mess. He has reversed his predecessor's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and applied for Gambia to re-join the Commonwealth, which may happen later this year. But as for the rather knottier issues of responding to demands for Mr Jammeh to face trial one day and rebuilding the economy, it remains a case of wait and see.

Although Mr Barrow has pledged a truth and reconciliation commission to hear evidence of past human rights abuses, he has so far shown little interest in prosecuting Mr Jammeh. His fear is that it would reopen more wounds than it would heal, but that justification will unlikely be enough to satisfy the families of the thousands who were tortured, jailed and in some cases killed by Mr Jammeh's henchmen.

"It is fine now to have peace, but sooner or later we also want justice," said Lamin Sonko, 59, who spent three years in jail for taking part in an unauthorised anti-government protest.

Meanwhile, many of Mr Sonko's fellow Gambians are still attempting the "Back Way" to Europe, despite Mr Barrow's pleas for them to stay at home and help him rebuild. As Mr Sonko points out, though freedom may taste good, it does not fill the stomach.

"People in opposition no longer disappear anymore, so things have improved in that respect," he said. "But so far our livelihood hasn't improved much."