Gambia's president says recovery 'like carrying a mountain'
By ABDOULIE JOHN | Associated Press | Published: February 1, 2018
BANJUL, Gambia — Gambia's new president says taking over a bankrupt nation was "like carrying a mountain" and that stabilizing the economy will take time after the former leader left it in tatters.
In an interview with The Associated Press, President Adama Barrow said the government of this tiny West African nation is working to restore the confidence of international development partners.
Barrow took power a year ago after a political showdown that saw longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh fly into exile following a surprise election loss.
The new president said his administration now must persuade Gambia's population of less than 2 million to have enough trust in the future to stay home and not make the risky journey toward Europe like many countrymen before them.
After more than two decades of Jammeh's rule, which was marked by widespread allegations of human rights abuses, the new government has vowed greater freedoms and justice for victims. But the coalition of opposition groups that joined to get Barrow elected now must stick together as the economy poses the first massive challenge.
"If you don't stabilize your economy, you cannot succeed as a nation," Barrow told the AP at State House, his official residence in the capital, Banjul.
Jammeh looted the economy and flew into exile in Equatorial Guinea with some of his fortune. As Barrow's administration began probing the depths of corruption, the giddiness of ousting one of Africa's most colorful dictators quickly turned to despair.
"The debt burden was very high, and was over 120 percent of the GDP," Barrow said.
Over the past year, his administration has been forging ties with global development partners, many of whom had turned away from Gambia during Jammeh's reign.
The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European Union and other partners already have pledged support. The World Bank lists $76 million in lending commitments for the 2017 fiscal year.
"We are now edging toward four months into recovery" with a new period of economic growth, Barrow said.
A new National Development Plan through 2021 has been launched as the government "aspires to lay the foundations for a modern democratic state but also to address pressing economic and social ills," he said.
Economic recovery is crucial in keeping Gambia's youth from setting off on the sometimes deadly journey across the Mediterranean toward Europe for work. The average Gambian earns about $40 a month.
"We have to win the confidence of these young people to stay at home," Barrow said. But he was quick to add: "The issue of migration needs to be put in a wider context. It is not an African problem" but one that Europe and Africa should address together.
About 5,000 Gambians are still stranded in Libya as Europe tightens measures that include training and equipping Libya's coast guard to stop boats attempting the dangerous sea crossing. The stranded migrants risk being sold into slavery, and Gambia was among the African nations expressing horror at recent video footage of slave auctions in Libya and bringing some migrants home.
Many Gambians have called for military intervention, but Barrow rejected the idea.
"Gambia will not send troops to Libya. We believe in dialogue," he said.
Closer to home, his new administration continues to undo restrictive measures put in place under Jammeh.
In December, the parliament endorsed two major bills to reshape the country's institutions and pave the way for a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission and a much-awaited National Human Rights Commission.
Barrow side-stepped a question on the need to set up an anti-corruption commission, and he stressed that Gambia's recovery will take time.
"We cannot do everything at the same time," he said. "We have to create the institutions and lay solid foundation for next generations."