Argos guard tackles Gambia strongman
Like thousands of other Africans working in Britain, Adama Barrow was a foot soldier in the army of uniformed security guards manning reception desks and patrolling high-street shops.
The burly Gambian tackled troublemakers at Argos on Holloway Road in north London and once made a citizen’s arrest that handed a shoplifter six months in jail.
Now, 15 years later, the 51-year-old is taking on a much tougher customer — the president of his homeland, Yahya Jammeh, one of Africa’s last remaining strongmen.
Gambia is known abroad as a welcoming destination for a winter beach holiday, but the leader of the small west African state is one of the continent’s leading autocrats. Jammeh’s lengthy official title of “Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President” gives a clue to his high regard for his own achievements.
From his six-wheeler Hummer limousine and entourage of bodyguards to his fondness for dark glasses, Jammeh has adopted the trappings of the African “Big Man”. Among his many boasts is a bizarre claim to have invented a herbal cure for HIV.
Jammeh has vowed to rule Gambia for a “billion years if Allah decrees it”. But Barrow has stepped forward to lead the most credible challenge to Jammeh’s hold on power since his 1994 military coup.
“Gambia is going very wrong under Jammeh. He is a one-man show who is dictating everything,” Barrow said as he campaigned for the December 1 election.
“Gambia has become one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the worst human rights records, but because of his own selfish interests he has continued to impose himself.”
Jammeh has won four elections that were marred by allegations of rigging and intimidation, but an attempted pre-emptive strike on the opposition this year appears to have backfired by uniting his foes behind Barrow.
An opposition leader died in prison in April after security forces broke up an opposition demonstration calling for electoral reform.
As the consensus candidate, Barrow is thought by diplomats to have a good chance of winning. But the campaign allows Jammeh to put his showmanship and charisma on display.
At a rally on the River Gambia’s northern bank last week, crowds turned out to see him arrive on a naval boat and then cruise the dusty streets atop his Hummer. Cheers rang out as he waved his Koran with one hand and a traditional healer’s cane in the other.
A dedicated anti-imperialist — three years ago he withdrew Gambia from the Commonwealth — he sniped repeatedly at the legacy of British rule in his speech. “Hundreds of years of British rule never gave Gambians a school,” he claimed.
Meddling western powers are the reliable bogeymen of the African strongman, and Jammeh has made the fear of foreign interference the cornerstone of his rule.
Last month he withdrew from the International Criminal Court, which he decried as the “International Caucasian Court” because it had not prosecuted European nations for allowing African migrants to drown in the Mediterranean.
The move was a popular one in a country that provides 7% of those crossing the Mediterranean from Libya — a disproportionate number for a population of only 1.9m.
The long-serving president is beginning to lose the support of those who used to respect him. “Jammeh did well in building up Gambia,” said Ali Jallow, 48. “When he first came to power we had no roads and no electricity. But 22 years is long enough — it’s time for someone else.”
Jammeh’s supporters point out that the country has been spared the civil wars that have ravaged nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone or the famines that have threatened Mali and Chad.
Thanks to tough border controls, Gambia also avoided the 2014 ebola outbreak and— so far — has had no Islamist terrorist attacks on its tourist strip.
Yankuba Colley, a pro-Jammeh mayor, insisted that the badge of dictator did not apply. According to his account, the clampdown in April had stopped a mob that had been protesting without permission.
“You cannot trample on other people’s human rights and then complain about your own,” he said.
The question looming over the poll is whether Jammeh will step down if Barrow is the winner. A ruler who thinks in billion-year terms is unlikely to go quietly — not least because Barrow has said that, if elected, one of the first things he will do is take Gambia back into the ICC.
If his supporters have their way, the next person he will help send to jail will be more than just a shoplifter.