This feature is part of Blavity’s African Spotlight series, which highlights heads of state, as well as other politicians and societal leaders, who are currently in power or influencing change on the continent. African leaders are making significant impacts both in their own countries and internationally. Growing diasporas and increasing interconnectivity make developments on the continent more relevant to Black America and people everywhere than ever before.
Life can change very quickly in The Gambia, a small, predominantly Muslim West African nation of about 2.5 million people that has seen its share of political turmoil over the years. These life changes have been especially quick for Adama Barrow, who has been president of The Gambia since 2017 and was just reelected for a new five-year term. When Barrow was born in February 1965, The Gambia was still a British colony. A few days later, it became an independent nation. Until Barrow’s surprise election win in 2016, the country had only had two leaders: founding Prime Minister and later President Dawda Jawara, who headed the country until being overthrown in a 1994 coup, and Lt. Yahya Jammeh, who took power in the coup and held on for over 20 years.
When Jammeh took power, Barrow had little inkling of entering politics. Barrow eventually went to the U.K. and spent several years in London, learning the real estate business and supporting himself as a security guard at a local chain store, Argos, according to the BBC. Barrow even caught a shoplifter, according to one British news report, but no one would have predicted that this guard and aspiring property developer would one day be a world leader.
Barrow eventually returned to The Gambia, where he became a successful property developer. He also began to engage in politics as a member of an opposition party, the United Democratic Party, or UDP, eventually becoming its treasurer. At the time, Jammeh was ruling the country as a brutal dictator; he held regular elections, but routinely rigged the process so that opposition candidates had little chance of winning.
Such appeared the case in 2016, when the main opposition candidate, UDP leader Ousainou Darboe, was jailed months before the Dec. 1 election. In September, the party chose Barrow as its new presidential candidate. The choice was a surprise; one attendee of the September meeting claims that Barrow didn’t even know he was in consideration for the leading UDP role until he showed up to the meeting. Other opposition parties rallied around the unknown Barrow, who had never before held public office.
With a united opposition and Jammeh’s corrupt rule making him increasingly unpopular, the longtime president was shocked when Barrow defeated him in what was supposed to be another rigged election. Yet again, Barrow’s life went through several quick changes in the aftermath of his victory. As shocking as Barrow’s win was in 2016, it was equally surprising when Jammeh graciously conceded after 22 years of harsh autocratic rule. But then, Jammeh quickly changed his mind, falsely declaring election fraud and refusing to leave.
Barrow was forced to flee the country for neighboring Senegal — which almost completely surrounds The Gambia — as Jammeh declared a state of emergency and cracked down on his opponents. Barrow, who was recognized internationally as the rightful winner of the election, was sworn into office while in Senegal and returned to The Gambia backed by troops from neighboring countries who threatened to remove Jammeh by force if necessary; Jammeh fled into exile and Barrow took office in Jan. 2017.
Barrow’s time in office has been a stark contrast to that of Jammeh. The former ruler had engaged in widespread corruption, terrorized opponents and journalists and made bombastic declarations that he could cure AIDS and that he might rule for a billion years. Jammeh remains in exile as he fears prosecution at home for the many crimes he and his regime committed, including accusations of sexual assault made by at least three Gambian women.
By contrast, Barrow has described himself as humble and down to earth, while others have characterized him as unassuming. Barrow’s first term was spent reversing many of Jammeh’s policies by releasing political prisoners, allowing the media to operate freely and setting up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations (TRRC) to investigate the crimes of the previous regime.
Nevertheless, the unassuming Barrow has shown more and more ambition since taking office. After initially promising to be a transition president who would step down after three years, Barrow decided to serve his full five-year term and then seek reelection this year. This move disappointed some of his followers. More supporters were turned away by Barrow’s decision this year to form a political alliance with ex-President Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, which is still an influential force in the country.
In the end, disappointment with Barrow’s choice, as well as sluggish economic performance — The Gambia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and it’s tourism industry took a big hit because of COVID — were not enough to prevent Barrow from winning another five-year term. In an election that observers declared free and fair, Barrow easily won more votes than the other four presidential candidates combined — one of his challengers included Ousainou Darboe, the former head of Barrow’s party.
Opposition figures have complained that Barrow’s government remains too powerful and that remnants of the old dictatorial order remain. For instance, critics have denounced the police for recently using tear gas to disrupt supporters of Darboe, who have been demonstrating against the results of the election. Nevertheless, while Barrow appears to have grown more shrewd and ambitious in his transition from real estate developer to head of state, he continues to strike a humble tone in public. "I have been the lucky person to be chosen by you,” Barrow told his supporters when announcing his reelection victory, adding that he will “use all the resources to make Gambia a better place for all." Time will tell if Barrow will live up to this promise.