Gambia is selling several planes and a fleet of luxury cars bought by former president Yahya Jammeh as it seeks to reduce a mountain of crippling debt contracted during the authoritarian leader’s decades-long rule.
Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup, fled Gambia early last year as West African neighbours were poised for military intervention to topple him after he refused to step down following an election loss to current President Adama Barrow. While most of his people struggled in poverty under one of West Africa’s most oppressive regimes, Jammeh acquired vast wealth, much of which he packed into planes and carried with him into exile in Equatorial Guinea.
However, a fleet of vehicles, including several Rolls-Royces with Jammeh’s name embroidered in their red leather headrests, were left behind on the tarmac.
“The fleet of expensive vehicles at State House and the three planes bought by former president Yahya Jammeh have been put on sale,” Finance Minister Amadou Sanneh told Reuters. “My ministry will soon start publicising the sales.”
The International Monetary Fund warned Gambia on Wednesday against any new borrowing after its debt stock reached 130 percent of gross domestic product at the end of last year. Most of that debt was contracted under Jammeh, either through borrowing or the government’s taking on the liabilities of state-owned enterprises.
“Let me be very clear ... it may even go higher because we have not opened the books of the state-owned enterprises,” said Jaroslaw Wieczorek, who led a recent IMF mission to Gambia. “It could be a lot of liability.”
Since taking office and discovering government coffers were largely empty, Barrow’s administration has worked to disentangle Gambia’s state finances from Jammeh’s sprawling personal business empire.
Sanneh said last year that around $100 million - more than a third of the government’s annual budget - had been siphoned from state firms. Barrow set up a commission that visited Jammeh’s many properties - one estate boasts a mosque, jungle warfare training camp and a vast private safari park - to establish an inventory of his possessions with the aim of recovering looted assets.
Investigators have also sought to establish what wealth Jammeh may have stashed abroad.
The process has faced opposition from Jammeh’s political party and supporters, who have accused Barrow’s government of carrying out a witchhunt against the ex-president.
Hardly a day goes by without a discussion on the migrants (including refugees) who have entered Europe in large numbers since 2015. Under the European Union Commission’s New Partnership Framework launched in 2016, one of the major short-term objectives is to ‘increase the rate of returns to countries of origin’, and last week, the president of the EU Commission announced a ‘more effective EU policy on return’. That said, return is tricky. It is unclear how effective it is in deterring future migration. And it may even have detrimental effects on the countries of origin. Take the Gambia for example.
Gambia became a symbol for democratic change earlier this year when former dictator Yahya Jammeh was peacefully ousted through the ballot box. However, more than two decades of dictatorship have left their mark on this tiny country in West Africa. The new government led by Adama Barrow has its work cut out to rebuild the country.
Gambians were among the top nationalities leaving West Africa for Italy in 2016. In total 11,929 Gambians arrived last year. But because they have a new democratically-elected government, European countries are now looking to increase the returns of Gambian migrants. A Working Party on Integration, Migration and Expulsion has already met at the European Council to discuss a draft agreement on returns between the EU and the Gambia.
A key element of return to the Gambia is the role that returnees can play once they are back and how well accepted they will be. Without a thriving labour market such reintegration will be challenging and at worst could lead to conflict among a group of frustrated young men.
Difficulty of reintegrating economically
The first challenge for returnees is that their chances of employment once they’re back in The Gambia remains slim. General unemployment is at 29.8%, and for youth it is estimated to be 38.5%.
Efforts are being made to tackle the root causes of migration by creating jobs. For example, new development projects are being launched in the Gambia including a 13-million-dollar EU Emergency Trust Fund project. This is a good start, but the project has just been launched and will take time to implement. It has also been criticised for a lack of ownership, with the implementing agent, the International Trade Centre, based in Dakar.
But is the money being used wisely? Reintegrating also needs to be visible at a societal and political level.
Rumours that government ministers have signed repatriation agreements in return for development funds are rife. Even though the rumours have been consistently denied they point to the fact that economic redevelopment has been heavily politicised.
This doesn’t help individual migrants who still need viable opportunities to reestablish themselves. Otherwise there is little reason not to emigrate again. At worst the frustration of returnees could lead to conflict.
The potential for conflict
Large numbers of young men returning without prospects of employment could have security implications for the young democracy. Though voluntary returns will be prioritised, a considerable number of cases are likely to be involuntary.
The potentially explosive levels of frustration already hold true for returnees from Libya. Since March 2017, the International Organisation for Migration has sought to voluntarily return Gambians home from Libya. In August, it identified 1,979 Gambians living in Libya.
By September 2017, 1,119 Gambians had been returned. When a focus group of 15 were questioned in a recent study, they said that they returned because of the gravity of their situation in detention centres in Libya, and to a degree, by the hope that things would be different in the new Gambia.
But the returnees were increasingly frustrated. Firstly, they were angry at returning home empty-handed. When they agreed to return they were under the impression that they would get reintegration funds from the International Organisation for Migration. But only the most vulnerable returnees received any.
And returnees felt abandoned by the new government. Again, they were under the impression that government representatives would welcome them home in person and give them a chance to voice their concerns.
During the focus group, one discussant concluded:
if this happens to continue, then we can do something crazy.
Slow and well-managed returns
Despite the political pressure for returns, European countries need to make sure they allow for a slow and well-managed process. This includes skills-training prior to return - and not just for refugees. This would allow a country like Gambia to create more employment opportunities in order to successfully reintegrate those who come back.
Those who have already returned need to be given a constructive and peaceful outlet for their grievances. Ultimately, to ensure successful repatriation returnees need to be represented politically so that they can have a stake in the future development of their country. In that way, the shame in returning home empty-handed might be easier to deal with. Otherwise, there will only be further (re)migration at a great humanitarian cost.
The Gambian government said on Saturday that it has cut excise duty on cement and flour imports.
"The duty on imported flour has been reduced from 47 percent to the normal rate of 20 percent, and the reference value shall be the transaction value," the government said in a statement.
"The additional measures of D1 (1 dalasi) per kilo of cement and 5 percent excise tax are now removed," the statement added. The government also lifted a ban on the importation of onions and potatoes. The ban was imposed by former president Yahya Jammeh in a move said to aim at protecting local growers.
What is next for Africa's newest democracy?
The Gambian political crisis appears to be over with President Adama Barrow having taken the reins of power, successfully and peacefully, with the backing and support of ECOWAS. So, what is next for sub-Saharan Africa's newest democracy following 22 years of authoritarian rule by outgoing dictator Yahya Jammeh?
First and foremost, expectations of Barrow's government are high, not only from the Gambian people. Many of ECOWAS's leaders - of note: Senegal's Macky Sall, Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, and Liberia's Johnson Sirleaf, have put their reputations, resources, and the future direction of West Africa on the line and will expect positive results from Barrow.
In addition, on a broader strategic note, one of the most important stories of the entire Jammeh head-spinning drama leading up to Barrow's January 19 swearing-in is ECOWAS achieving something that the African Union (AU) is yet to: commit to physically removing a dictator from power with forces on the ground, ready to carry out the mandate.
Hence, the AU - although it has talked for decades about the importance of democratic governance and respect for elections - has never taken any action similar to ECOWAS's in the Gambia against an African presidential peer. I hope going forward that the AU really takes a page out of ECOWAS's playbook on how to handle African presidents who fail to adhere to the democratic outcome of an election and the will of the people.
That said, Barrow's good stewardship of the forward movement of Gambia's democracy will be critical. Barrow has said since taking office that he plans to institute good human rights and governance practices, address longtime concerns about the country's security agencies, reform the military, and ensure that those wrongly accused (especially political prisoners) who are behind bars are given due process or freed - all important and great things for a new democracy to do.
What does all this mean for the Gambian people?
Although Gambia has not had good governance in a long time, expectations among the Gambian people are high.
The fact that 63 percent of the population are 25 years-old or younger is an important fact that cannot be stressed enough. This means that most of the country's population has not known any other leadership except Jammeh's ruthlessness, but will be looking to experience an open political process, dialogue, freedom of association and the press.
They will also expect Barrow to quickly address the country's long-time economic woes, its high poverty levels which hover around 48 percent of the population, and high youth unemployment. According to several news reports, Barrow stated that Gambia faces a large budget deficit of $107m, which is mostly the result of mismanagement, over-expenditure, and likely also caused by theft during the Jammeh regime, which would include Jammeh himself (Reports are that Jammeh stole approximately $11m upon his departure from the country).
However, the new Gambian president will need to find ways to cover both the budget gaps, as well as expand the country's narrow economic base - which is mostly focused on revenue from tourism, agriculture and remittances; address social issues of education and health; provide for the large increase in rural to urban migration; and focus on infrastructure development.
Jammeh - a life of impunity?
The question now is whether or not Jammeh will get away with all the crimes he has committed, which would not serve the positive resolution of the country's political crisis well or help further solidify West Africa's overall democracy efforts.
Furthermore, the Gambian people will be expecting Jammeh's crimes to be addressed. Democracy is several things, including but not limited to: freedom of speech, association, the press, free and fair elections, and respect for the rule of law, which includes not getting a pass on crimes committed by those in power.
For sub-Saharan Africa to continue to have mature democratic processes, it also must show that leaders who break the law, and steal the wealth of their nation, must answer for their crimes. Jammeh's exile to Equatorial Guinea (an interesting choice - and possibly the only choice at the time given that its leader has behaved similarly to Jammeh for nearly as many years) hopefully will be temporary, so that he can face charges of both human right abuses and illicit enrichment.
It will be important for the region to demonstrate that impunity is no longer an acceptable practice along with leaders thwarting free and fair election. We hope that it does not take decades to bring Jammeh to justice, like it did with former Chadian leader, Hassan Habre, who was tried and convicted in Senegal in May 2016 (hats off again to Senegal's President Sall on this).
If Jammeh's crimes are left unpunished, it would undercut all of the great recent effort by ECOWAS on standing up to tyrants in the region and certainly be a disappointment to the people of Africa's newest democracy in the Gambia.