Elections in The Gambia are always a thrilling affair. There is a unique marble voting system used nowhere else in the world and results that rock the political establishment. While the outcome of this election avoided the ugly scenes witnessed four years ago – when former President Yahya Jammeh refused to accept defeat – a stark challenge of uplifting a struggling economy awaits his successor, Barrow, who easily clinched re-election.

Saturday’s vote had the hallmarks of stepping into a banana skin for any elected official defending their seat in this new pandemic-induced normal. Those concerns turned out to be a blush as President Adama Barrow easily won re-election garnering 53% of the ballot, far ahead of veteran politician Ousainou Darboe’s 27.7%, according to election officials results.

Turnout was remarkably high, at 87%, a reminder that political tensions will remain high in this West African country.

Barrow’s victory was built on his positioning as a candidate for continuity. But now he must abandon that persona as he faces mounting pressure from home and abroad to institute political and economic reforms.

Reforms

International partners are calling on The Gambia to make changes to its 1997 constitution that would limit presidential terms. At home, victims of former President Jammeh’s autocratic rule are pressing Barrow to prosecute those responsible for decades of torture and abuse. The litany of crimes were spelled out in a long-awaited report released on the eve of the election. 

The report gave out a six-month ultimatum for the president to respond, and Barrow has promised justice, even though he has urged victims to be patient. Some fear he will be reluctant to act as his political party forged an electoral alliance with Jammeh’s. The former leader is currently living in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Political reforms are not the only issue that need to be tackled. The Gambia’s economy, – heavily reliant on tourism – has been struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its currency, the Dalasi, has been falling against major international currencies. 

“As a Gambian, I would love to say that it’s still a great place to invest. However, we do have some significant challenges and due to the lack of diversification of the economy, we do have an issue. Unfortunately, the sectors that have hurt are tourism and the greater sort of hospitality sector has struggled greatly,” Maudo Jallow, an advisor to the Office of the President, told Mansa’s podcast in August. 

“Gambia wasn’t necessarily an all-year-round tourist destination. It was seasonal and still will be. So it got hammered. And there aren’t a lot of flights that come here to begin with. So a lot of the tourist or chartered flights from the U.K. and other parts of Europe stopped flying to the Gambia. A lot of unemployment, as a result, people lost their jobs and the tourism sector is huge in The Gambia in terms of employment.”

While seeking re-election, President Barrow sought to downplay concerns about the economy, which is only expected to see 4% growth in 2021. His government points at the increase in remittances as a sign of resilience. According to the central bank, Gambians abroad sent home $657.22 million from January-October this year, nearly thrice what the country earned from tourism in 2019.

However, bravado from the head of state cannot mask the realities. The Gambia with a population of 2.4 million people is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its GDP is just $1 billion. For many in the country, every day is a struggle to survive

When asked why he lined up early to vote, Babacar Diallo said, “”It is a very important to vote because we want change.”

“The times have been hard, the economy is bad.”

Lamine Njie, a 30-year-old carpenter, said he was fed up. He said he planned to go to Senegal the following day and from there head to the United States. Gambian leaders “are doing nothing and are eating up the country’s money.”

Sunset at the Bijilo Beach in The Gambia in 2017. Courtesy: The Gambia Tourism Forum

To counter the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, Barrow’s government negotiated a loan arrangement with the International Monetary Fund. So far, the Washington-based lender has disbursed $55.7 million under the 39-month Extended Credit Facility.

The loans have heightened fears of debt distress, as the country’s total debt stood at more than $706 million in October, according to the central bank.

Positive outlook

Despite the gloom, there is hope of better days. The financial sector has witnessed impressive growth and modernization. It now consists of commercial banks, foreign exchange bureaus, microfinance institutions and other fintechs.

International organizations have also taken an active role to support The Gambia’s economic diversification.

In November 24th, the World Bank board approved a $40 million grant from the International Development Association (IDA) to promote the development of inclusive, resilient and competitive agricultural value chains, with specific focus on small holder farmers and agribusinesses in the The Gambia.

The project is expected to directly benefit some 50,000 farmers and at least 10 SMEs. At least 50 percent of the beneficiaries will be women, and 30 percent will be youth.

“The Gambia can transition out of fragility only by addressing constraints on development in key economic sectors such as agriculture. The project will support the government efforts to boost commercial agriculture by investing in enabling agribusiness environment and mobilizing private investment through a dedicated matching grant mechanism,” said Feyi Boroffice, World Bank Resident Representative in The Gambia.

The government is also speeding with plans to improve the country’s infrastructure. In June 2020, the OPEC Fund for International Development signed a $20 million loan agreement with The Gambia to co-finance the expansion of the Bertil-Harding Highway. The upgrading of the road infrastructure is expected to create jobs for more than 520,000 people in the Greater Banjul area, while reducing travel time and access to marketplaces.

Tough work ahead

Reversing The Gambia’s current economic fortunes will be a difficult task, even for the shrewdest administrators. The Gambia does not have it own stock exchange, and thus misses out on crucial foreign direct investment.

It also requires capital investment to improve its electricity infrastructure, which currently experiences large technical losses and unmetered consumption estimated at about 40%.

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