President Adama Barrow of Gambia arrived in the country on Thursday for the first time since being elected in December. He had fled to Senegal when his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, initially refused to step down. By REUTERS. Photo by Jerome Delay/Associated Press.
BANJUL, Gambia — A week after he was inaugurated in another country, Adama Barrow landed in Gambia on Thursday afternoon, setting foot inside his own national borders for the first time as the new president.
Throngs of supporters, some holding Gambian flags, lined the roads to greet Mr. Barrow, who had flown in from Dakar, Senegal, where he had fled more than a week earlier out of security concerns after his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, refused to step down. As he entered Banjul, the capital, Mr. Barrow, dressed in all white, poked out of a white Land Cruiser surrounded by military vehicles and waved to onlookers.
“Today is freedom day,” said Mariama Bah, a nurse from Serekunda, a town nearby, who came to the airport to welcome President Barrow. “We now have a president that we can be proud of.”
Mr. Barrow defeated the longtime president, Mr. Jammeh, in a surprising outcome to an election in December. Mr. Jammeh, who had been in power since 1994 when he led a successful coup, initially accepted defeat. A few days after the vote, he changed his mind, declared the election results invalid and vowed to use the power of his military to stay in charge.
It took repeated personal overtures from West African presidents and finally a regional coalition of troops that crossed into Gambia to persuade Mr. Jammeh, known for human rights abuses, to step down. He flew out of the country on Saturday, accompanied by a cargo plane containing his Rolls-Royce and other luxury automobiles, and has settled in Equatorial Guinea, which has its own record of human rights violations.
Mr. Barrow’s arrival capped a tense period for many Gambians who had feared a bloody end to the presidential standoff. Tens of thousands of residents had been so worried that they fled the country, though many already have returned.
But Mr. Jammeh still has supporters left in Gambia, and some residents worry divisions could lead to problems in the new administration. Mr. Barrow has dismissed his predecessor’s supporters as a minority. Most of all, many residents said they were weary of the regional troops who were still roaming the capital. They had arrived at the statehouse to search it and make sure all was safe for Mr. Barrow’s return, but their presence on the streets was unsettling to many. Mr. Barrow’s aides said the soldiers were likely to remain in Gambia for weeks as the new administration makes the transition.
Some Gambians worried that it was still too early for Mr. Barrow to come home.
“Yahya Jammeh was not acting alone,” said Ishmael Ceesay, 24, a mobile phone salesman in Serekunda. “His people are still around.”
Mr. Barrow’s aides said the president would stay at a private residence until the regional troops finished securing the statehouse.
Mr. Jammeh’s rule penetrated the psyche of many Gambians who feared him, so much so that thousands fled years ago. Their departure further damaged an already shaky economy that Mr. Barrow has said would be a priority for him.
Mr. Jammeh jailed journalists and his opponents, some of whom died in prison, carried out hunts for people believed to be witches and forced patients to stop taking medication so he could test what he said was his homemade cure for AIDS — herbs, prayers and a banana.
Residents of Gambia talked about Mr. Jammeh only in hushed tones, and rarely in public, and even some members of the diaspora said they were convinced he was monitoring their communications.
Mohamed Jalloh, who sells fabric at the entrance to the Statehouse, said he had spent the past two decades praying a bullet would not come flying toward him.
“Yahya Jammeh brought so much fear in us,” Mr. Jalloh said.
The paranoia was evident even this week, with Mr. Jammeh hundreds of miles away, when a Gambian newspaper reported that he had left toxins in the vents in the Statehouse to poison his successor. Mr. Barrow’s team said the report was false.
For many Gambians, the pain of Mr. Jammeh’s rule was all too real. Some residents said part of Mr. Barrow’s new job would be comforter in chief. Mr. Barrow has vowed to create a truth-and-reconciliation commission to look into injustices during Mr. Jammeh’s more than 22-year administration.
On Wednesday afternoon in Brikama, the region where Mr. Barrow received the most votes, three women sat on a long wooden bench. They wore yellow #GambiaHasDecided T-shirts, a motto adopted by the opposition that wanted Mr. Jammeh to leave. Like many others across Gambia, each of the women said a relative had been killed by security forces loyal to Mr. Jammeh. As they sold sugar at the market, the three spoke of their losses.
It was during the 2011 presidential election campaign that Nyima Jabang’s father, an ambulance driver, was tortured and killed while in custody at the National Intelligence Agency. His crime: driving two men to a hospital who had been wounded at a rally in a clash between Mr. Jammeh’s party and the main opposition party, the United Democratic Party.
The next day the brother of Nyima Sanyang, another of the friends selling sugar, was arrested by security forces in connection with the campaign clash and was beaten to death.
The third woman, Bintu Sonko, 30, described the long, speeding motorcades that carried Mr. Jammeh and his aides, who would toss packets of cookies to supporters.
In 2013, Ms. Sonko’s son, Lamine, 7, heard Mr. Jammeh’s cars approaching. He ran out with his friends to wave to the passing president. Lamine darted into the street to catch a cookie and was struck and killed by a car in the motorcade.
“They did not even stop,” Ms. Sonko said. “They kept going and throwing cookies at the rest of the kids. We can’t even report the matter to the chief or the police.”
“That was my only child.”