President Yahya Jammeh had ruled the tiny West African nation of Gambia with an iron grip for 22 years and vowed to rule for a billion more. Then, on Dec. 2, 2016, after a re-election campaign in which his security forces mercilessly harassed and intimidated the opposition, he somehow lost by roughly 50,000 votes to a little-known real estate developer who had never held elective office, shocking Gambians and international election watchers alike. Perhaps Jammeh was overconfident and didn’t do enough to rig the vote. Perhaps, after two decades of interacting mainly with sycophants, he really believed his people loved him. Regardless, Adama Barrow’s peaceful toppling of one of Africa’s most repressive dictators instantly became a symbol for hope not just in Gambia but across the continent. As soon as the results were announced, Gambians erupted into celebration in Banjul, the capital, chanting, “We are free. We won’t be slaves of anyone.”
The party turned out to be a bit premature. No sooner had Jammeh conceded defeat than he reversed course and rejected the election result, denouncing it as the work of mysterious foreign plotters. As the political standoff intensified, some 45,000 Gambians — including Barrow himself — sought refuge in Senegal and Guinea. It took six weeks and the arrival of 7,000 West African troops before Jammeh finally fled, allowing the rightful victor to take office.
Born in 1965 to an ethnic Fula family from rural eastern Gambia, Barrow earned a scholarship to attend high school in Banjul in 1985 and eventually made his way to London, where he worked as a security guard and studied real estate. After several years in the United Kingdom, he returned to Gambia in 2006 and started his own property company. A longtime member of the opposition United Democratic Party, Barrow ran unsuccessfully for National Assembly in 2007 and became the party’s treasurer in 2013. But his ascension to party leader was mostly incidental: In July 2016, the UDP’s leader, Ousainou Darboe, was sentenced to three years in prison for organizing a protest, leaving the party without a standard-bearer months before the presidential election. Barrow never threw his hat in the ring to replace Darboe, and he reportedly only discovered that he had been nominated when he saw his name on the ballot. “No drama Adama,” as he came to be known, seemed in many ways like the polar opposite of the egomaniac he unseated.
His victory, and his triumphant return to the country on Jan. 26, was hailed as a new beginning for Gambia. But the task before him was immense: Jammeh had left the country broke, divided, and internationally isolated.
Nearly a year into his presidency, Barrow has begun to make progress. Over the course of 2017, he freed hundreds of political prisoners and canceled his predecessor’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. He has also mended relations with the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the British Commonwealth. In February, Brussels committed to unfreezing $36 million in aid funding.
Barrow, who promised on the campaign trail to introduce presidential term limits, has established a commission to draft a new constitution. He is also working to revitalize the ineffective and corrupt civil service by raising salaries and decentralizing power. Under Jammeh, “key decisions were all decided at the presidency,” says Alex Vines, the head of Chatham House’s Africa program, so devolving decision-making authority to the executive agencies represents a “completely new departure.”
Such reforms are bound to take time, and already the slow pace of change has caused disappointment in some quarters. Frequent power outages and water shortages around the country have led to demonstrations, and there are worrying signs — such as the government’s decision to deploy police and military units to deter protests in November — that Barrow’s Interior Ministry is falling back on its iron-fisted habits for dealing with them. Such fears have been heightened by the fact that many Jammeh loyalists remain ensconced in the bureaucracy. “Patience has been forthcoming, but … a dilapidated infrastructure, and the continued employment of many former Jammeh associates, is undermining the atmosphere,” says Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former minister of information jailed under the Jammeh regime.
To reassure voters, Barrow must make concrete improvements, and fast, says Abdoulaye Saine, a professor of international and comparative politics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. To this end, Saine says, the “ongoing trial of nine former National Intelligence Agency personnel, including its chief, bode[s] well.”
Indeed, despite the frustrations, Barrow has already delivered democratic freedoms that were unthinkable less than a year ago. “Before, most of these values of freedom and human rights, we dreamed about them,” says Gambian journalist and blogger Sanna Camara. “But now we are living that dream in this new Gambia.”
Martin de Bourmont is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.