HIGH HOPES: Voters queue at a polling station in Bakau, Gambia, on April 6. Picture: AFP
The recent parliamentary elections in Gambia have ushered in a new chapter for the smallest country on mainland Africa and marked its entry into the comity of nations.

The country of more than 2 million people is transforming from its decades-long status as a pariah nation during the rule of dictator Yahya Jammeh to a new era premised on democracy, peace, reconciliation, observance of human rights and the rule of law.

The polls held this month were the first since the inauguration of Adama Barrow as president early this year. The outcome was a landslide for his United Democratic Party (UDP), which won 31 of the 53 seats.

Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, a dominant force since a coup in 1994, lost a massive 38 seats to emerge with five. Jammeh’s party has been relegated to the opposition benches.

The UDP is among four new parties in parliament. Others are the Gambia Democratic Congress (five seats), People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (four seats) and People’s Progressives Party (two seats).

The opposition has boycotted previous elections, citing rigging and persecution.

For the first time, the EU deployed a fully-fledged observation mission to Gambia. It concluded the elections were peaceful and commended electoral authorities for a well-administered process.

The mission hailed a free and open campaign, as the electorate was offered a wide variety of views. Media coverage was a far cry from the crackdown on media witnessed during Jammeh’s reign when radio stations were restricted by the National Intelligence Agency.

The majority win in the legislative poll paves the way for Barrow to fulfil his pledges of greater freedom, an improved economy, better education and the scrapping of plans to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.

“The election results give a strong mandate to Barrow and his government to pursue his reform agenda of fostering democracy, peace, reconciliation, the respect of human rights and the rule of law,” noted Miroslav Poche, who headed the mission.

The inauguration of legislators was in contrast to the chaos surrounding Barrow’s inauguration. He was sworn in in neighbouring Senegal,after Jammeh clung to power despite his defeat. Barrow got 43.3% of the votes to the dictator’s 39,6% in December’s presidential poll.

Poche noted the new legislature had the opportunity to repeal draconian laws passed by the despot.

Challenges lie ahead as Jammeh, exiled in Equatorial Guinea, imposed a climate of fear atop an administration that detained, tortured and killed opponents.

More than 50000 people fled and over 126 000 became displaced internally during the power vacuum created by Jammeh’s post-poll defiance. Businesses were forced to shut down.

Barrow has ordered the release of scores of political prisoners who Jammeh held without charge. Thousands returned home. About 27 500 Gambians have left Senegal, where many fled, since Barrow’s inauguration.

The new president has committed to unite a country polarised along religious lines and scrapped the tag of Islamic republic.

Christians, who have experienced violence at the hands of Islamist mobs to entrench Jammeh’s rule, feel a part of the country again.

There are encouraging signs Barrow, a Muslim, is initiating positive relations with this minority.

“Under my presidency, we will try to ensure the sovereign protection and development of all children. We will work to make free education a reality,” he has said.

The international community has warmed to Barrow’s approach.

The EU has announced an $80 million package of support. Aid has previously been withheld amid friction with Jammeh.

Britain also reiterated its commitment to aid after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s recent visit.

Recently, a delegation of government officials, private sector representatives and development partners participated in the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s investment policy review of Gambia.

The report, prepared at the government’s request, presents recommendations to improve Gambia’s legal framework for investment and its approach to the promotion of foreign investment.

The report highlighted that the potential of one of the continent’s poorest countries remains largely untapped. It said Gambia required clearer provisions and more effective implementation of laws governing business; strengthened government institutions and a prioritised and focused investment promotion strategy.

“The (report) is timely and the new government requires visibility to attract new investments,” said Naffie Barry, Gambia’s secretary of trade, industry and employment.

Barry said the government was determined to implement its recommendations to address constraints hindering economic activity.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development’s Chantal Dupasquier emphasised the role foreign direct investment could play in helping achieve development objectives.

“Clarity, stability and predictability are keywords for investors.”

Other policy challenges include further streamlining processes to formally register businesses, reforming tax laws, improving access to land and addressing constraints that impede trade.

An International Monetary Fund mission has said the country’s economic growth last year was estimated to have been only 2.2%, down from 4,3% the previous year, due to limited availability of forex, weak agricultural output and the political impasse.

The mission met Barrow, Finance Minister Amadou Sanneh and central bank governor Amadou Colley, as well as development partners and representatives of the private sector and civil society.

The mission has initiated discussions on providing IMF support through a rapid credit facility.

“Addressing the effects of the shocks and restoring economic stability will require concerted policy efforts, as well as support from the international community,” said delegation head Ulrich Jacoby.

“With the transition to a new, democratically-elected government, Gambia is at a historical turning point but significant economic challenges lie ahead,” said Jacoby.

Headline annual inflation stood at 8,8% in February, driven by higher food prices and the recent depreciation of the dalasi currency.

The situation has been compounded by economic mismanagement and massive embezzlement of funds by the previous regime.

However, the international community has been quick to re-engage with the former British colony, independent since 1965.

Development partners have indicated substantial financial support.

“Such support will assist Gambia in its reforms but will need to be accompanied by significant domestic efforts to ensure a return to economic growth and stability.

“The EU remains optimistic Gambia is on course to fulfil its potential.

“Gambia has changed forever. The people are fully conscious that they can put a government in office as well as remove it,” said Poche. – CAJ News