By DIONNE SEARCEY*
One of these days, the West African nation of Gambia will get to see its new president, Adama Barrow, in the flesh.
He won an upset electoral victory in December over the country’s autocratic leader of 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, and was sworn in on Thursday when his term officially began. But the inauguration took place at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, because Mr. Jammeh was still trying to stay in power and Mr. Barrow was afraid for his safety.
Mr. Jammeh finally agreed on Saturday to relinquish power and left the country. But on Sunday afternoon, Mr. Barrow was still in Dakar, waiting for word that he could return safely to Gambia and get down to the business of governing his struggling country.
As the West Africa bureau chief of The New York Times, I interviewed him at a house he owns in Dakar. Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. The expectations for you from your many, many supporters are huge. What is your chief priority, once you get to the statehouse?
A. The economy is our chief priority. We will get our cabinet in place. We want to get the experts in every area, so that they will design a blueprint for how to move forward. But the economy is No. 1.
Your welcome-home speech to Gambians in exile must have been really heartening for them to hear. How can you also lure home the thousands of Gambian migrants who have gone to Europe? How will you dissuade other Gambians from joining them?
I think these 22 years have been very, very difficult for everybody, basically, whether you live in Gambia or you live outside. This crusade was like everybody was part of it — the Gambian diaspora, Gambians locally, residents in the Gambia — everybody was involved in this. So you want everybody on board. Everybody has the liberty to come back home and offer your services in any area you feel you can contribute.
Are there political prisoners to free? Are there human rights violations to mop up?
There are a lot of them to be freed. There are a lot of people who are detained without trial. People who have disappeared and they have not been traced — we don’t know if they are in the prisons. We will free all of them. Political prisoners will be freed immediately when I get home — all political prisoners.
There were a surprising number of Jammeh supporters at the airport last night as he was leaving. Soldiers were crying. People were sad to see him go. Is that going to be a problem in your administration? Is there a divide in the country?
They are in the minority. Even the security forces —— they have been there for 22 years. Obviously, yes, he came to have good friends and sympathizers. But I think they are in the minority. It will not be a problem. It will take a little bit of time, but I think that as our government is established, they will see the difference. A democratic government is installed, a democracy that is run on the principle of the rule of law. Soon, everybody will appreciate the new government.
It must have been an extraordinary week for you. You became president. You can’t get to your own country until now. And you also lost a young son [who died in Gambia after being attacked by a dog]. How are you dealing with all this?
It’s a very difficult situation. But if you are a politician, you have got to be strong. I am strong enough. I am in a foreign land, but very soon I will get back home. I have people on the ground who are effective and doing a very good job. So basically, it is not a big problem. But as the leader, I will get back home very soon, sooner than later.
When you return, what will your policy be toward Mr. Jammeh and his supporters? Is prosecution still a possibility?
Let me just get these things straight. We are not talking about prosecution yet. We want to get to office and have a truth-and-reconciliation commission. You cannot act without getting the truth, getting the facts. It’s what we want to do first, as our first step, and we’ll wait for the recommendation that we’ll get from truth-and-reconciliation commission. Based on that, we will act.
Across the world, people are watching the situation in Gambia unfold. There’s been a lot of interest from America and in Europe, as well as in West Africa. What is the message you want to send now about Gambia?
The message is, Gambia is back again. We have been isolated for so many years, and we want Gambia to be very active again in this world. We want Gambia to be very friendly, and we want to join all the international organizations, the Commonwealth, and to respect all protocols as the new Gambians.