Adama Barrow, the president-elect of Gambia, is sipping a lemonade in his sitting room, having just won his battle to end 22 years of dictatorship – at the ballot box. It's been a long haul for the 51-year-old businessman, who once worked as a security guard at Argos on London's Holloway Road.
“In two months, I will be president,” says Barrow, surrounded by family and friends as he watches a flat-screen TV replay footage of his unexpected victory. “I have been here for 20 years trying to change the government. Now it has happened, and we have a team of highly educated people to bring change.”
Bringing change to this tiny west African state and its population of two million brought risks to Barrow's life. Incumbent Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 coup, has locked up and tortured countless political opponents and journalists, most recently in April and May after activists took to the streets.
Jammeh’s reign was the stuff of horror. Paranoid, he hunted down hundreds of Gambians on charges of sorcery in 2009, bussing them to secret locations and poisoning them with a hallucinogenic concoction. Brutal, Jammeh vowed to personally slit the throats of gay people. Deluded, he claimed to cure HIV sufferers with herbal syrup and prayer.
Nobody expected the dictator, who once boasted that he would rule Gambia for a billion years, to go quietly. As the country erupted in scenes of mass euphoria on December 2nd, the day after the election, there were fears of a crackdown. But Jammeh stunned the nation by conceding defeat and promising a peaceful transition.
Thousands to the streets
“I am not surprised by Jammeh,” says the president-elect with quiet confidence. “He is very wise. He knows we can bring thousands to the streets. He knows he’d be the victim. Power belongs to the people.”
People power is very much in evidence at Westfield Junction, a rallying point for Gambians in Serrekunda, on the outskirts of the capital, Banjul. Jubilant locals dance to music blaring from cars and pick-up trucks, tapping fingers on wrists to indicate that Jammeh's time is up. People carry brooms, literally sweeping away the old regime.
Everywhere, the streets resound with cries of freedom. “I can report that there is absolute peace in our country,” says Assam Jobe (21), a journalism student. “We’re all one Gambia now. We want peace, tranquillity and maximum respect.”
Bouba Jarja (32), a lifeguard, doesn’t mince his words: “Jammeh is a serial killer and a devil worshipper.”
Barrow, who headed up a coalition of eight parties, defied the odds with his victory. For one, he managed to slip through a system that guaranteed votes for the status quo from the army, the civil service and village chiefs. He won the poll by a comfortable margin, despite the opposition vote being divided between his coalition and a party set up by a former Jammeh ally.
He faces daunting challenges. Jammeh's rule saw a mass exodus of Gambians taking the so-called "backway", a local term for the perilous journey through the desert and across the sea to Europe, escaping persecution and one-meal-a-day subsistence farming.
“The infrastructure is bad,” acknowledges Barrow. “The health system is broken. In education, we have lots of schools but no quality.” He has pledged to offer free basic education and affordable health care. He says the country’s fishing industry could be developed to expand an ailing economy reliant on budget tourism, remittances and peanut exports.
In a country where disappearing political opponents has become common practice, Barrow wants to press ahead with reforms that will ensure an independent judiciary. This year, most members of the opposition United Democratic Party, including leader Ousainou Darboe, were given three-year jail sentences. Two died in custody.
“There have been too many detentions without trial,” says Barrow. “Justice delayed is justice denied. If the press is free, the government is accountable. We want press freedom, with educated people who are enlightened.”
Renew international standing
Barrow intends to bring Gambia back into the international community. For one, he plans to reverse the country's recent withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, which Jammeh's regime had dubbed the "international Caucasian court", accusing it of unfairly targeting African countries. (The decision, announced in October, followed South Africa and Burundi's exit.)
He also wants to bring Gambia back into the Commonwealth, which Jammeh left in 2013. This is a measure of the deep ties he feels with Britain, where he worked as a young ma.
Barrow remembers his time as a security guard in London with fondness. “I wanted capital to start my real estate business, so I stayed 3½ years. I built my home with it, he says, waving one hand around the room.
“Now we will create the new Gambia,” he says. “We need to start stabilising the situation. People trust me as an honest man.”