Gambia’s president has stepped aside after 22 years in power. This might mark the beginning of recovery for the Gambian economy, undermined by decades of authoritarian rule.
December 2, 2016 was a historic day in Gambian politics. President Yahya Jammeh, also known as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa”, a Mandinka-language phrase translated as “conqueror of rivers”, conceded defeat to opposition candidate Adama Barrow in the presidential election.
An autocratic leader who came to power in a 1994 military coup, Yahya Jammeh once announced he was ready to rule for “one billion years”. A de facto member of the African “Presidents for Life club” alongside Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (in power since 1986) or Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (who first assumed office in 1987), his decision not to hold on to power after four presidential mandates is unique.
In the past decade especially, President Jammeh’s reign has been tainted by his megalomania and eccentricity, but also by human rights abuse. Besides claiming to cure AIDS through an herbal concoction, the Gambian president made headlines after he launched a witch-hunt against homosexuals, claiming in 2013 that “homosexuality is anti-god, anti-human, and anti-civilization”. In the past year, the autocrat declared the Gambia an Islamic Republic and withdrew the country from the International Criminal Court, in another drastic blow to human rights. Gambian authorities also routinely target journalists and members of the opposition, infringing on the right to information and free speech as recently as on Election Day, during which the Internet and international communications were cut.
For a small economy in which growth is driven mainly by tourism-related services, the source of 30% of the Gambia’s export earnings and 20% of GDP, the political misdemeanor of the president can be very costly. The EU withdrew about €13 million worth of aid in 2013 over human rights concerns, with heavy consequences for the population, one third of which lives below poverty line.
In addition to reliance on IDA, the lack of diversification also makes the Gambian economy vulnerable to external shocks. In 2015, the 60% fall in tourism linked to the Ebola outbreak led to the decision of the IMF to bailout the Gambia up to $10.8 million. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Sidi Sanneh, interviewed by Le Monde, deplores the government’s economic mismanagement, which pushed the Gambia over the edge. Total debt today exceeds 100% of GDP, and debt-to-GDP ratio is the highest in the region. This public debt crisis is only worsened by the weakness of the local currency, the dalasi, which fell by 12% against the dollar in 2014, increasing the risk of debt distress as two-thirds of public debt is denominated in foreign currency.
This macroeconomic fragility is impacting the population, with soaring inflation rates averaging 7.5% in 2016. The direct consequence of both repression and economic uncertainty is massive emigration, which is significant in a country with a population of 2m. The Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community (AFIC) reports that Gambians are one of the top five nationalities to use the Central Mediterranean route. In 2016, they accounted for 7% of the 130,411 migrants and refugees reaching the shores of Italy according to UNHCR. This outmigration further worsens the development challenges faced by the Gambia in the long run, with a large portion of the working-aged population taking the “back way” to Europe.
The election of Adama Barrow heralds hope in a brighter future for “the smiling coast of West Africa”. His vision for national unity and economic upturn entails a focus on self-reliance in food production with the priority given to supporting services in agriculture, a key measure as 60% of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The road to recovery is not going to be easy after 22 years of erratic decision-making, but Adama Barrow has brought to the country what it needed most: international attention from donors and investors, and hope that might contain the exodus that is wearing down the economy.