Counting the cost of Gambia's political stand off

Since president's rejection of electoral defeat, tourism suffers, locals flee urban areas amid fear of violence

Counting the cost of Gambia's political stand off File Photo

By Saikou Kalleh

Banjul, GAMBIA

Gambia, a small country split in half horizontally by its eponymous river, prides itself on being west Africa’s “smiling coast”.

However, hopes for peace and prosperity are under threat from the decision of its outgoing president to reject recent election results endorsed by the UN, the African Union and regional economic bloc ECOWAS.

Gambians went to the polls on Dec. 1 but, after initially accepting his loss, the country’s strongman, Yahya Jammeh, rejected the result in their “totality”, plunging the country into crisis.

Despite Jammeh’s reaction, President-elect Adama Barrow told journalists that his inauguration will be held on Jan. 19, when Jammeh’s 22-year rule is due to expire. Regional leaders have pledged to use force should the outgoing president refuse to step down.

Since the stand off began, fear and uncertainty have taken grip and the economy has started to feel the pinch.

Amadou Bah, 59, who runs a shop at the biggest market in coastal Serrekunda, the country’s economic capital, said he had seen a slowdown in sales amid an atmosphere of apprehension.

“In my 30 years in the Kombo, I have never seen the state of fear that I am seeing today,” he said, referring to Gambia’s urban areas. “People are taking their families to rural areas and some Senegalese are going home.”

Apart from a narrow strip on the Atlantic Ocean, Senegal surrounds Gambia and many Senegalese live and work within the borders of their smaller neighbor, which has enjoyed relative stability since independence in 1965.

Nationals from Guinea and Guinea-Bissau have also started leaving and Gambians in towns and cities are sending their families to the countryside, fearing possible violence.

Tourist cancellations

Since independence Gambia, unlike many of its neighbors has avoided conflict although a short-lived coup in 1981 saw hundreds lose their lives.

Despite this comparative stability, Jammeh’s authoritarian rule since taking power in a bloodless coup in 1994 has unnerved many. In 2013, he withdrew Gambia from the Commonwealth of mostly former British colonies amid international condemnation of human rights violations.

Bunama Njie, general manager at Senegambia, one of the country’s leading hotels, and acting chairman of the Gambia Hotel Association, told Anadolu Agency that some tourists had cancelled trips due to the political crisis.

“The last executive meeting we had showed that all the hotels have been affected by cancellations,” he said.

Tourism makes up around 20 percent of Gambia’s gross domestic product -- second only to agriculture.

Njie said the business community had seen the “writing on the wall”, which led to the hotel association issuing a statement demanding Jammeh step down.

Lamin Sonko, a security guard at the Senegambia, reinforced the impression of dwindling tourist numbers. “By this time you should have seen lots of tourists… but that’s not the case,” he said. “Even the Christmas celebration this year was very boring.”

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry is another influential body to have voiced disquiet over the political situation. President Muhammed Jagana described the impasse as “challenging”.

He added: “We spoke to some of our members from the banking industry and others… and they raised their concerns.”

The chamber also called for Jammeh to step down after consulting members.

Major challenges

“We can’t quantify the level of the damage but going to hotels that are part of our membership and talking to businesspeople around town, you could see that there is a slowdown,” Jagana said.

“We do hope that on Jan. 19 there will be a peaceful transition of power.”

Since Jammeh’s rejection of the election defeat the country has seen high levels of opposition to his continued rule with the Gambia Bar Association, the main teachers’ union and other unions and institutions insisting he respect the outcome.

The crisis is amplified by already existing economic challenges, such as public debt of around $1 billion, or 110 per cent of GDP.

According to government statistics, 48 percent of Gambians live on less than a dollar a day, and the official unemployment rate is 30 percent.

Agriculture, which provides the majority of rural Gambians with a livelihood, has recently dropped to employing 31 percent of the workforce, a fall of 40 percentage points in less than 20 years.

This year, more than 10,000 Gambians arrived in Italy by sea, having crossed the Sahara and the Mediterranean in a sign of increased desperation.

Although the European Union provides budgetary support, tens of millions of euros was recently blocked due to concerns over human rights violations under Jammeh, including a crackdown on opposition figures in the lead up to the election and a tight grip on the media.

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