President Adama Barrow took over the presidency of the Gambia on January 19, 2017, in an emotional ceremony in Senegal that marked the passing of the torch from President Yahya Jammeh. He assumed office with a short but effective speech, in words that conveyed humility, determination, compassion for the downtrodden, and a determination to pursue the path of harmony while preserving and protecting the inclusive Gambia that generations of his predecessors had sought to establish.
As he takes over, the country is poised to be caught up in conflict, recrimination and quasi-democracy. It is a time of challenge and one of opportunity. President Barrow and the Gambia will be confronted with an onslaught of challenges in the lead-up to the transition period.
In my view, the coalition government under his leadership must decide what Gambians stand for and communicate it effectively. The coalition government’s core message has been the values it embodied since the days of the freedom struggle: inclusive growth, social justice, civil and political freedoms, abolition of poverty, and protection of the marginalized, including minorities. These have been distorted and portrayed as pandering to vote banks rather than as the sincere, indeed visceral, convictions that they are. President Barrow needs to reaffirm our belief in these values and reiterate them at every opportunity, especially as governmental rule has made these issues more urgent.
President Barrow has dropped his habitual reticence and spoken out more often and more boldly through the coalition spokesperson, especially on private media and social media, where his wit has made a genuine impact. He must double down on this approach and set an example of accessibility and transparency about our values, actions, and concerns. If President Barrow shares his thinking with the people of the Gambia, it will be easier to bring them to his side. The media-driven mass politics of the 21st century requires open communication, which his government has recently shied away from. President Barrow is well-placed to drive the much-needed change and articulate a vision that embraces the aspirations of the youth of the Gambia, particularly young women.
A startling 40 percent of voters in 2016 were under the age of 45. That figure will be even higher in next elections. The youth voters need to hear what the government has done and can do for them. When in power, the government needs to do a great deal of work in areas of education and skill development; and President Barrow needs to translate this work into specific proposals.
President Barrow has spoken of the failure of the previous government to create jobs; he now needs to offer Gambians own job-creation strategies. Young Gambians must understand their aspirations and believe that they can be trusted to promote them in government.
Since the coalition government has the most experience in safeguarding Gambia’s national interests, President Barrow must proudly articulate his own nationalism and remain vigilant on security and foreign policy issues that are being mishandled by the previous government. Though our tradition is that political differences stop at the water’s edge and that foreign policy is the Gambia’s, not any one party’s, he must not allow the ethno-political chauvinists position to be identified as the sole protector of Gambia national pride, which many people may define differently.
President Barrow must lead a constructive government inside and outside the National Assembly. He must show his capacity to stand up to the APRC’s and the bullying of the tactical alliance supporters. The Gambia is increasingly desperate for an alternative to APRC’s misrule. It is in our interest to cooperate whenever the APRC or supporters of the tactical government lives up to conciliatory pronouncements and truly opposes for the benefit of all Gambians, but to oppose them robustly whenever they pursue a sectarian or divisive agenda.
President Barrow and his coalition government must devote most of the government’s attention to the poo. The coalition government is rightly accused of having lost touch with the common people in many regions. They must focus more on grassroots and local governments, and not only during elections. Government and top civil servants must pay more attention to the petty problems of governance and corruption that beleaguer most Gambians, and which voters blamed on the previous regime for bad governance.
The coalition government should promote Inner-Party Democracy and rein in internal dissent. President Barrow has not been consistently right on this. He should follow his instinct and open with the cocktail coalition for governance in its key positions, including cocktail stakeholders. Allow, indeed encourage, the emergence of the Gambian diaspora to participate in periodic elections. At the same time, President Barrow should crack down severely on the disloyalty and dissidence stoked by those who would put their personal ambitions above the governments’ interests, a habit visible in many democratic governments.
President Barrow can explore pragmatic Coalitions while retaining a unified anti-government space. He must urgently start putting together a credible policy that can win a majority of the hearts and minds of the Gambian people. He must reach out to embrace all Gambians in our common efforts to resist unacceptable policies.
Political arrangements and adjustments will also permit this government to put up a stronger fight both in the National Assembly and in the diaspora. President Barrow must be careful not to let coalition structures atrophy because of such understandings. In the long term, he must build institutions – especially state institutions – as a credible alternative that Gambians have been yearning for more than a quarter century, an alternative that cannot just be written off.