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Middle East & Africa World

Transitions of Power: The U.S. and Gambia

Adama Barrow, the chief executive officer of Majum Real Estate and the beneficiary of a meteoric rise from relative obscurity, was sworn in as President of The Gambia at 5 p.m. GMT in the Gambian embassy in Senegal. Because of the date of the inauguration, and President Barrow’s similarity to the new American president (both were primarily known for real estate prior to their candidacies, and neither has previously held elected office), the parallels between the situation in The Gambia and our own recent inauguration are difficult to miss.

Yahya Jammeh, the former President of The Gambia, had served in his role as head of state, despite an attempted coup in 2014, since his violent takeover in 1994. Jammeh triggered international approval, and surprise, when he publicly accepted the results of the December first election. Days later, Jammeh caused consternation when he appeared on Gambian national television to declare that, after discovering voting irregularities, he had no intention of relinquishing the presidency until another, valid election was held.

As January 19, the planned inauguration date approached, tensions in the nation became such that nearly fifty-thousand Gambians retreated to neighboring Senegal. President-elect Barrow was one of them. Meanwhile, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) became determined to ensure that Barrow was installed. Senegalese troops amassed on the Gambian border.

January 19 came and went–unlike the United States, Gambian presidents do not automatically gain power at a set time on inauguration day–and Jammeh was still in office.

In addition to the Senegalese troops, ECOWAS deployed the presidents of both Mauritania and Guinea to ensure that Jammeh left office. Shortly after a discussion with the two heads of state, Jammeh came onto national television again. This time, he announced that he would step down as President. Simultaneously, Senegalese troops began to move into The Gambia.

Barrow was sworn in at a sparse ceremony at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, just prior to 5 p.m. GMT, and just as the invasion commenced. Like the other new head of state, who was being sworn in at almost exactly the same time, Barrow took his oath of office on the holy book of his nation’s majority religion.

The American inauguration, by comparison, was far less tumultuous. Then President-elect Trump and First Lady designate Trump had coffee with then-President and First Lady Obama before proceeding to the Capitol for the inauguration. Unlike the Gambian inauguration, President Trump’s inauguration was attended by his fiercest, political rival and critic, Hillary Clinton. Although a foreign actor may have played a role in the now President’s electoral victory, there was, predictably, no concurrent invasion of the United States.

On January 20, 2017, peaceful transition of power prevailed. Both presidents mark a departure from the longstanding political order, but where one is more autocratic than his nation’s norm, the other is more moderate and displays faith in the world order. Despite their differences, and the fact that the American president has threatened to ban people of the religion of his Gambian counterpart from the United States, the two heads of state promised to look after the interest of all their people with their hands resting on the purported source of their morality.

The events of Inauguration Day should bring hope to the people of both nations. Not long ago, the United States was a fledgling democracy with weak institutions. Gambia has a new President who has promised to bring accountability to the military and prosperity to its people. In the United States, millions of people have flooded the streets since the inauguration and demanded equality. Activists in Gambia have hope for the rebuilding of their nation.

Barrow is expected to return to The Gambia at 4 p.m. GMT on Thursday four full days after former President Jammeh departed for Equatorial Guinea with as many as 13 luxury cars and as much as $11.3 million in tow. Of the approximately 7,000 ECOWAS troops who invaded The Gambia, nearly 4,000 have remained to secure the capital and to ensure that Gambia’s security forces remain loyal to Barrow. The troops could stay in The Gambia for as long as six months.

There are also lingering concerns about ethnic tensions between the minority group of which former President Jammeh is a part, the Jola, and the majority Mandinka group of which current President Barrow is a member. Although President Barrow is inheriting a fractured nation, there is some cause for hope. Mohamed ibn Chambas, the UN Special Envoy for West Africa, plans to travel with President Barrow on his return to Banjul. The UN Security Council President, Olof Skoog, has also called for continued vigilance on the part of the Security Council and a concerted effort from the UN toward fostering democracy in The Gambia.

Unlike the other high-profile peaceful transition of power this month, The Gambia’s does have the potential to break gender barriers. Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang has been appointed vice-president, despite being challenged for exceeding the age limit for executive officials.