Jubilant Gambians on Thursday welcomed home their new President Adama Barrow, who was elected almost two months ago but forced to flee to Senegal when his predecessor refused to step aside.
Dressed in flowing white robes and cap, Barrow stepped off the plane, with heavily-armed troops from Senegal and Nigeria standing by as he flew in from Dakar where he had taken shelter on January 15.
Barrow, who was accompanied by his two wives and some of his children, was welcomed by military officials and senior members of his coalition government.
His return marks The Gambia’s first democratic transfer of power and capped days of waiting in the tiny former British colony until finally longtime leader Yahya Jammeh stepped down and left the country after having refused to recognise the result of the December 1 election.
“I’m a happy man today. It was part of the struggle and I think the bad part is finished now,” Barrow told journalists in Banjul.
“I will get my cabinet in place and then get the ball rolling,” he added.
Barrow took the oath of office at his country’s embassy in Dakar a week ago and a multinational African force then entered The Gambia to ensure his safe return home and Jammeh’s departure.
Hundreds gathered at the airport awaiting Barrow’s arrival, with drummers and dancers firing up the crowds as Nigerian and Senegalese soldiers looked on.
“He will develop this country! He’s good, not a killer,” said Barrow supporter Adja Kombeh.
Gambians have said they were looking forward to their freedom after two decades of Jammeh’s iron-fisted rule.
– ‘He will be different’ –
“I’m 100 percent a Barrow supporter and I’m more happy than I can say,” said Kanamo Sansou, sitting with his friends at Serrekunda market close to the capital Banjul.
“He will be different in all aspects… we have been living under dictatorship for 22 years,” added pensioner Ibrahima Gaye.
“You can go home at night and sleep without worrying you will be arrested before daybreak,” he said.
Barrow had not been seen in public since his swearing-in and has yet to publicly address Gambians.
Diplomats had urged Barrow to return quickly to curb the impact of the political crisis on the tourism-reliant economy, already in a fragile state.
The UN envoy for West Africa, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who briefed the Security Council on The Gambia, stressed that the United Nations was working to bolster stability.
He also hailed the “historic moment” of Barrow’s presidency and the role of the international community.
“When the international community speaks with one voice, in support of democracy, in support of a credible, transparent electoral process, we can always have a good result,” he said.
Barrow will be staying at his own residence until further notice while State House, Jammeh’s former seat of power, is assessed for potential risks.
His first job is to deal with an internal crisis after it emerged his choice for vice president, Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, may be constitutionally too old for the role.
– Immunity for Jammeh? –
Around 4,000 west African troops remain in The Gambia charged with ensuring safety, as it is believed rogue pro-Jammeh elements remain in the security forces that were once under his personal control.
“President Adama Barrow has asked us to remain for two or three weeks to see if there are arms caches or mercenaries hiding out,” said Marcel Alain de Souza, head of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) commission.
Jammeh left the country on Saturday and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea under threat of a regional military intervention.
The authorities have accused the former strongman of plundering state coffers and making off with $11 million (10 million euros).
Jammeh’s former interior minister Ousman Sonko was arrested in Switzerland on Thursday as he is under investigation for possible crimes against humanity during the ex-strongman’s regime.
But Barrow has told Jammeh he will have all the rights legally ensured to an ex-president, which under Gambian law include immunity from prosecution, barring a vote by two-thirds of the national assembly.
However Chambas said there was nothing in the UN-backed agreement that paved the way for Jammeh’s departure that gave him immunity.