Adama Barrow: Gambia's unassuming president for change

 19 Jan 2017 - 20:04

Adama Barrow: Gambia's unassuming president for change
Adama Barrow

AFP

Banjul, Gambia: He rose from nowhere, but Adama Barrow -- an Arsenal fan who was once a security guard in London -- was elected on people's hopes of delivering long-wanted change in The Gambia.

A softly-spoken, untried 51-year-old candidate who pulled off a shock win on December 1, Barrow's unconventional route to the presidency has been overshadowed by a political crisis triggered by the man he narrowly defeated.

Yahya Jammeh, president for 22 years, initially conceded defeat but days later performed a U-turn and is still refusing to quit office, leaving doubt over any formal transition of power.

Barrow was finally sworn in as president on Thursday, but at his country's embassy in neighbouring Senegal's capital where he sought refuge days before. It remained unclear whether force would be needed to ensure he can finally take office in Banjul.

A former economic migrant, Barrow's lack of political baggage endeared him to voters, in contrast to Jammeh, a longtime leader of the poor West African state seen as ruthless and self-serving.

But he is still clinging to power despite African forces massing on the border ready to oust him.

Barrow -- who suffered personal tragedy on Sunday when his eight-year-old son died after being bitten by dogs -- has been sheltering in neighbouring Senegal pending his inauguration.

Devout Muslim, football mad

A businessman who owns an estate agency, he was previously employed at The Gambia's largest property rental firm, and lived in Britain for three and a half years when he was younger.

His time in Britain saw him work as a security guard in London, where he developed a love for Arsenal. Football is one of his few distractions.

A husband to two wives and father of five until his son's death, he is a devout Muslim and self-confessed workaholic.

"If you are a religious man it always influences you," he told AFP in an interview last year.

Burly but soft-spoken, Barrow was thrust into the limelight following the jailing of top officials from the United Democratic Party (UDP) in the Gambia last July.

During the election campaign his face was plastered on car windows, brandished on campaign posters, and printed onto grey T-shirts popular among Gambian youth.

Banjul-based diplomats said his previous lack of a profile may have worked in his favour, allowing him to deliver a fresh message.

A quest for peace

Having previously left his homeland to find work, Barrow identified with the draw of Europe for young, poverty-struck Gambians fleeing in huge numbers for the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

"There is a crisis in the Gambia, that's why everyone is taking the Back Way (migrant route)," he said, mindful that riches seldom await those who reach other countries with little awaiting them.

"You hear the name Europe, you think it's heaven. It's never like that," Barrow said, speaking of his countrymen -- 60 percent of The Gambia's 1.99 million population is graded as living in poverty.

Barrow's campaign benefited from social media and internet technology, which helped the opposition organise mobile rallies and avoid roadblocks during campaigning.

In a Christmas message, he said Gambians should be free of the threat of violence as "we enter a New Year of hope", alluding to Jammeh's stubborn efforts to hang on to power.

"I should assume office when the term of office of the incumbent expires... I do not want to preside over a country that is not at peace with itself," he said.

"I am calling on all peace loving Gambians to... work for a peaceful transfer of executive power, for the first time in our history since independence."