The Gambia will rejoin all of the international organisations from which its autocratic leader has withdrawn it, the country’s president-elect has pledged.
The small west African nation has left the Commonwealth, made moves to leave the international criminal court and been declared an Islamic republic under Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled the country for 22 years and had vowed to rule it for a “billion more”.
But Adama Barrow said he would reverse all of these moves. “We want to expedite everything. Gambia lost a lot, so we wanted to make sure we join all international organisations. Gambia will be back again,” the incoming president said in a wide-ranging interview.
He said Jammeh’s idea of turning the Gambia – a country that is 95% Muslim and 5% Christian – into an Islamic republic had been cooked up to satisfy hardline supporters. “The Islamic state is a non-starter in this country,” he said. “It’s a stable country.”
Barrow, a former security guard at Argos and a father of five, used his lack of political baggage to woo voters desperate for change, claiming 45.5% of the vote last week to Jammeh’s 36.7%. If Jammeh gives way in mid-January, Barrow will become only the third Gambian head of state since independence in 1965.
Barrow said relations between the Gambia and its former colonial ruler Britain would be much improved under his government. He spoke fondly of his time in Britain, where he worked as a security guard at various high-street shops, including the shoe shop Office.
Each year thousands of Gambians leave in search of work in Europe, and Barrow said he could identify with them as he thought of himself partly as an economic migrant.
He said there had been “a lot of things” that had taken him to London, and the move had helped him to establish a business. “I wanted to change environment, I wanted to learn and I wanted to establish a business – I needed capital to establish that business,” he said.
“I was able to get experience, and it also changed my attitude towards work. It made me more hardworking when I came back to the Gambia. I learned a lot in England.”
He travelled by bus all over London and was never harassed, he said. “Everyone was friendly. People liked me because I was very, very hardworking. In my own humble self, I’m down to earth in my own life.”
When Barrow returned to the Gambia to his wife and children, who had stayed at home, he established an estate agency and he now owns more than 50 properties, according to his nephew. He also married a second woman, meaning the Gambia will have two first ladies.
The interview was briefly interrupted by a call “from the Commonwealth”. When he emerged, Barrow looked happy. “The secretary general tells me he’s looking forward to meeting me later in the new year, and if he’s coming here he’ll have his application form [for the Commonwealth] in his back pocket. We welcome that idea,” he said.
Barrow said his plan now was to focus on building the Gambia’s small economy, which is mainly based on groundnuts and tourism. “The economy will be our priority, but everything’s a priority in the Gambia – infrastructure, the judiciary, the media, everything,” he said. “But the economy is very important because in that aspect, Gambians will feel the change.”
He called on the large Gambian diaspora to “come home and develop this nation” by sharing their skills and experience. “There’ll be a big party,” he said.
Although many Gambians speak of their country as “the New Gambia”, Jammeh is still in charge until the handover. Barrow has not met or talked to the outgoing president since Jammeh accepted defeat in a video broadcast to the nation a week ago.
Barrow, who was speaking from a hotel heavily guarded by Senegalese security guards, said there would definitely be a truth and reconciliation commission like the one chaired by Desmond Tutu in South Africa after the end of apartheid, to find out what happened during the 22 years of Jammeh’s rule.
“When you get to the bottom of the truth, that’s the time you can effect this reconciliation. It’s something very important for us, so we’re working on that,” he said.
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Asked whether his government would prosecute Jammeh for the imprisonment, rape, torture and killing of dissidents, he said: “It’s not a personal thing against anybody. It’s not personal – it’s on principle that we’ve come to government. When we get there, there’ll be a lot of inquiries.”
He confirmed there would be an inquiry into whether Jammeh had stolen the Gambia’s assets while he was president.
“We are thinking of a complete overhaul of the whole system, so that will be part of it – you name it, land or whatever,” he said. “There will be a complete overhaul. We need to correct the system, and when you correct the system you need to look into all avenues.
“We don’t want to base our things on rumours, we want to get the real information, and based on that we’ll decide what to do.”