THE change of leadership in the Gambia — the first peaceful and democratic one since independence in 1965 — was the result of fervent prayer, the Anglican Bishop, the Rt Revd James Odico, said this week.
The former President, Yahya Jammeh, who once vowed to rule for “a billion years”, flew out of the country on Saturday night, after initially having refused to accept the result of the election held last month. The atmosphere was now “peaceful and calm”, Bishop Odico said.
In December 2015, Mr Jammeh declared that the Gambia was an Islamic republic. A spokesman for the new President, Adama Barrow, said last week that this designation would be annulled: “[President Barrow] wants Gambia to remain a secular state, and respect the rights of all the people.”
On Wednesday, Bishop Odico described how Mr Jammeh had refused to meet church leaders. Christians had prayed “fervently” — including a three-hour gathering in the national stadium last year — for God’s intervention. “Our prayers were felt throughout the length and breadth of the country, and we believe that it is because of our prayers that change has come to the Gambia,” he said.
Mr Jammeh initially accepted his defeat in the election of 1 December, but, within a week, had reversed that decision. At least 45,000 people fled to Senegal in the following weeks.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, expressed concern about an increased military presence across the country, and spoke of a record of “excessive use of force against demonstrators, arbitrary detention, and deaths in custody, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees”.
Regional leaders intervened to facilitate Mr Jammeh’s departure, culminating in the dispatch of troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was welcomed by Gambians’ celebrating on the streets.
Mr Barrow was sworn in as President at the Gambian embassy in Senegal, on Thursday. On Sunday, the UN, ECOWAS, and the African Union pledged to work with the government to ensure that it “assures and ensures the dignity, respect, security, and rights” of Mr Jammeh, his family, officials, and supporters. No legislative action would be taken against him, they said, nor any seizure of assets “lawfully belonging to him”. But President Barrow, whose adviser has suggested that Mr Jammeh left the country with $11.45 million, has said that his predecessor had not been given immunity.
Speaking three days after Mr Jammeh flew to Equatorial Guinea on Saturday night, the director of communications for the RC Bishop of Banjul, Fr Peter Lopez, said that the mood was one of “relief”.
“We have gone through a lot in the past 22 years, and we feel a heavy burden has been lifted from our shoulders,” he said. The result of the December poll had been a “very big surprise. A lot of people had lost hope. We felt this man was not going to go, through the ballot box. We thought it would be through another way.
“I have been in this country for 45 years, and I don’t think I have ever seen that kind of jubilation. There was one week of great joy and happiness. People could say how they felt.”
Fr Lopez spoke of his admiration for the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of The Gambia, the Most Revd Hannah Faal-Heim, who challenged Mr Jammeh during a meeting on 19 December which was boycotted by many church leaders, many of whom had warned her that Mr Jammeh would have her arrested.
“That woman sat right in front of him,” Fr Lopez said, “and told him: ‘This whole problem is only caused by one man, and that is you.’ Everyone was so happy in this country — finally someone in 22 years can sit and tell this man what everyone was feeling, but was afraid to say.”
Mr Jammeh’s decision to declare an Islamic republic was unpopular, Fr Lopez said, even among Muslims, who make up more than 90 per cent of the country. Christians and Muslims had always lived in harmony, despite attempts by Mr Jammeh to start “putting division” between them.
“This new President, who is a wonderful man so far, from what we have seen, I feel will bring in people, let people demonstrate what they believe in, let this country be democratic,” he declared. He looked forward to Gambians’ being able to “realise their potential”. Many “well-trained” Gambians had left the country for the West, he said, but he hoped that they would now return. “There is great potential and great hope, as long as you allow people to realise their God-given talents and their gifts.” EU data suggest that more than 10,000 Gambians arrived in Italy by sea in 2016.
“The rule of fear has been banished from Gambia for good,” President Barrow said on Friday. “To all of you forced by political circumstances to flee our country, you now have the liberty to return home.”