Elated Gambians are reported to be preparing to welcome home their new president on Thursday after a protracted crisis over an election dispute that forced him to flee to neighbouring Senegal.
Adama Barrow’s return will cap days of anxious waiting in the tiny West African nation that was thrown into chaos when long-time president Yahya Jammeh refused to step down after losing a December vote.
Barrow took the oath of office at his country’s mission in Dakar a week ago and a multinational African force then entered The Gambia to ensure his safe return home and Jammeh’s departure.
Gambians said they were looking forward to their freedom after two decades of Jammeh’s iron-fisted rule in the former British colony, and would be welcoming at the airport.
“I’m 100 percent a Barrow supporter and I’m more happy than I can say,” said Kanamo Sansou, sitting with his friends at Serrekunda market close to the capital Banjul.
“He will be different in all aspects… we have been living under dictatorship for 22 years,” added pensioner Ibrahima Gaye.
“You can go home at night and sleep without worrying you will be arrested before daybreak,” he said.
A senior government official had told AFP that Barrow would be returning at 1600 GMT on Thursday, saying: “It is important for him to come to avoid the void.”
– ‘Building pillars of reform’ –
The official said the priority would be “putting into place the pillars of reform and human rights”.
“People are very happy and it’s elating”.
Diplomats had urged Barrow to return quickly to curb the impact of the political crisis on the tourist-reliant economy, already in a fragile state.
The UN envoy for West Africa, Mohamed ibn Chambas, who briefed the Security Council on The Gambia, stressed that the United Nations was working to bolster stability.
The UN official is due to fly to Banjul for Barrow’s return.
Swedish ambassador Olof Skoog, who holds the Security Council’s presidency, said: “We shouldn’t just turn our back on Gambia now and walk away to the next situation but really make sure that we stay the course and support democracy.”
– Immunity for Jammeh? –
Barrow will be staying at his own residence until further notice while State House, Jammeh’s former seat of power, is assessed for potential risks.
His first job is to deal with an internal crisis after it emerged his choice for vice president, Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, may be constitutionally too old for the role.
Around 4,000 west African troops remain in The Gambia charged with ensuring safety, as it is believed rogue pro-Jammeh elements remain in the security forces that were once under his personal control.
The new president must also deal with latent ethnic tensions between Jammeh’s minority Jola people and the majority Mandinkas, to which Barrow belongs.
Jammeh finally left the country on Saturday and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea under threat of regional military intervention.
The authorities have accused the former strongman of plundering state coffers and making off with $11 million (10 million euros).
But the new government has that confirmed Jammeh will be permitted to keep a fleet of luxury cars, including two Rolls Royces.
Barrow has told Jammeh he will have all the rights legally ensured to an ex-president, which under Gambian law include immunity from prosecution, barring a vote by two-thirds of the national assembly.
However Mohamed Ibn Chambas said there was nothing in the UN-backed agreement that paved the way for Jammeh’s departure that gave him immunity.