“This is the day we’ve been waiting for,” Sanna told me as he and hundreds of Gambians gathered outside their country’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal to celebrate the inauguration today of President Adama Barrow. Barrow took the oath of office at the embassy, wary of returning to Gambia where his safety would be at risk.
But Gambia’s political crisis remains unresolved – with now former president Yahya Jammeh clinging to power in the capital, Banjul, and an Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) force at the border, preparing to intervene. In stark contrast to the jubilant scenes in Dakar, Banjul remains eerily quiet and on lockdown, with people fearing a military intervention or a crackdown by Jammeh’s security forces.
Gambian activists in Banjul told me they were happy the crisis would soon be over, but feared the political standoff would not end peacefully. “We don’t want to be Jammeh’s last victims,” one told me.
Since coming to power in 1994, Jammeh and the Gambian security forces have used enforced disappearances, torture, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests to suppress dissent and preserve Jammeh’s grip on power.
Barrow’s taking office could be hugely significant for the advancement of human rights in Gambia. He has promised to dramatically improve the country’s rights record, including by releasing political prisoners and ending Jammeh's planned withdrawal from the International Criminal Court.
Since the December 1 election that he lost, Jammeh has arrested a number of opposition sympathizers and army officers deemed disloyal. He also closed several independent radio stations.
Many Gambians outside of the embassy were still hopeful Jammeh will agree to step down peacefully. “We’re close,” Salieu Taal, a founder member of the #Gambiahasdecided movement, told me today. “It will be a new dawn for human rights and civil society in Gambia.”
If Jammeh does not step down, it is vital that the Gambian security forces, wherever their loyalty may lie, respect human rights; that all Gambians resist reprisals; and that ECOWAS forces who may enter Gambia respect rights and do all they can to avoid civilian harm.