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Adama Barrow, businessman and a successful property developer who owns an estate agency, never held public office, has defied the odds to score a shock victory in The Gambia’s elections. Although he became treasurer of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) party in 2013, Mr Barrow was not a household name in The Gambia. He was described as “little-known” even by one of the local media outlets supporting him. In an interview with a local media, Mai Ceesay, a former female UDP youth leader, describes Mr Barrow as industrious and humble, calling him the perfect candidate:
“He is humble, kind and industrious man who breaks the deal. He is down to the earth,” she said.
He was previously employed at The Gambia’s largest property rental firm. A former economic migrant, he lived in Britain – The Gambia’s former colonial ruler – for three and a half years in the early 2000s. His time in the UK saw him work as a security guard in a North London branch of the catalogue retailer Argos, where he developed a love for the English football team, Arsenal.
Mr Barrow’s opponent Yahya Jammeh, has ruled the country for more than two decades, but said if God willed it, his presidency could go on for “a billion years”. Adama Barrow victory in Gambia’s presidential eelction was arguably an even bigger shock than that of fellow property mogul in the US, Donald Trump.
Throughout his campaign, Barrow pledged support for an independent judiciary, as well as increased freedom for the media and civil society. He described his opponent as a “soulless dictator” and promised to undo some of Mr Jammeh’s more controversial moves.
“We will take the country back to the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court (ICC),” he said.
Who is Adama Barrow?
Adama Barrow, born 16 February 1965 to an ethnic Fula family from rural eastern Gambia, Barrow earned a scholarship to attend high school in Banjul in 1985. In the early 2000s, he lived in the UK for several years, where he reportedly worked as a security guard at the Argos catalogue store in north London, while studying for his real estate qualifications.
British media have even reported that while guarding the shop on Holloway Road, he made a citizen’s arrest on a shoplifter, which resulted in a six-month jail term. It was also during that period that Mr Barrow chose to support Arsenal FC, at that time his local club.
After several years in the United Kingdom, he returned to Gambia in 2006 and started his own property company. A longtime member of the opposition United Democratic Party, Barrow ran unsuccessfully for National Assembly in 2007 and became the party’s treasurer in 2013.
But his ascension to party leader was mostly incidental: In July 2016, the UDP’s leader, Ousainou Darboe, was sentenced to three years in prison for organizing a protest, leaving the party without a standard-bearer months before the presidential election.
Barrow never threw his hat in the ring to replace Darboe, and he reportedly only discovered that he had been nominated when he saw his name on the ballot. “No drama Adama,” as he came to be known, seemed in many ways like the polar opposite of the egomaniac he unseated. He was especially popular among young voters who have been badly hit by the country’s struggling economy.
His victory, and his triumphant return to the country on Jan. 26, was hailed as a new beginning for Gambia. But the task before him was immense: Jammeh had left the country broke, divided, and internationally isolated. Nearly a year into his presidency, Barrow has begun to make progress. Over the course of 2017, he freed hundreds of political prisoners and canceled his predecessor’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. He has also mended relations with the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the British Commonwealth. In February, Brussels committed to unfreezing $36 million in aid funding.
A devout Muslim, he also criticised the lack of a two-term limit on the presidency and condemned the jailing of political opposition figures. Speaking to the BBC three days before the election, Mr Barrow said that Gambians “had been suffering for 22 years” and were ready for change. He scorned the achievements of his opponent, who boasted of having brought The Gambia out of the stone age with his education and health programmes. The hospitals President Jammeh had built had “no drugs… or quality doctors”, the schools “no teachers, no chairs… no good educational materials”, he said.
They were “white elephant projects”.
Adama Barrow, who promised on the campaign trail to introduce presidential term limits, has established a commission to draft a new constitution. He is also working to revitalize the ineffective and corrupt civil service by raising salaries and decentralizing power. Under Jammeh, “key decisions were all decided at the presidency,” says Alex Vines, the head of Chatham House’s Africa program, so devolving decision-making authority to the executive agencies represents a “completely new departure.”
Such reforms are bound to take time, and already the slow pace of change has caused disappointment in some quarters. Frequent power outages and water shortages around the country have led to demonstrations, and there are worrying signs — such as the government’s decision to deploy police and military units to deter protests in November — that Barrow’s Interior Ministry is falling back on its iron-fisted habits for dealing with them. Such fears have been heightened by the fact that many Jammeh loyalists remain ensconced in the bureaucracy.
“Patience has been forthcoming, but … a dilapidated infrastructure, and the continued employment of many former Jammeh associates, is undermining the atmosphere,” says Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former minister of information jailed under the Jammeh regime.
To reassure voters, Barrow must make concrete improvements, and fast, says Abdoulaye Saine, a professor of international and comparative politics at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. To this end, Saine says, the “ongoing trial of nine former National Intelligence Agency personnel, including its chief, bode[s] well.”
Indeed, despite the frustrations, Barrow has already delivered democratic freedoms that were unthinkable less than a year ago. “Before, most of these values of freedom and human rights, we dreamed about them,” says Gambian journalist and blogger Sanna Camara. “But now we are living that dream in this new Gambia.”
Adama Barrow Quick Facts
- Member of the Fula ethnic group, born in 1965, the year of Gambian independence
- Reportedly worked as a security guard at Argos in the early 2000s while studying in UK
- Returned home in 2006 to set up property business
- Supports English Premier League football team Arsenal
- Nominated as the candidate for coalition of seven opposition parties, promising greater respect for human rights
- A devout Muslim who is reportedly married with two wives and five children
- Mr Barrow missed his son’s funeral as he was advised to remain in Senegal for his safety ahead of his inauguration – held in his country’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal, on 19 January
A husband to two wives and father of five until 15 January 2017, Adama Barrow eight-year-old son Habibu Barrow died reportedly after being bitten by a dog. Barrow is known to be a devout Muslim and a self-confessed workaholic.
“If you are a religious man it always influences you,” Adama Barrow said.