Opening Up to the World: President Barrow’s Diplomatic Success, Vision and Developmental Progress

  • 0

“Welcome to The Gambia,” he says calmly as he welcomes the team and settles down to a conversation with the African Leadership Organisation team at the Presidential Palace in Banjul. His Excellency, Adama Barrow, President of the Republic of The Gambia, has been eulogised by many, but very few have been able to capture his gentle nature and calm disposition.

His commitment to peace and stability as the precursor to jobs and wealth creation in The Gambia has seen him do things differently. As the first step towards the recovery and restoration of The Gambia, he set up the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission, the National Human Rights Commission, the Constitutional Review Commission, the Security Sector Reform, and the Civil Service Reform.

These and many more prepared the ground for the enormous work of restoring the country’s local and international image. In this exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine, he talks about his government’s efforts to revolutionise the country, one sector at a time. Excerpts.

Your Excellency, President Barrow, thank you for granting this interview to African Leadership Magazine. We have followed you over the last 5 years, and yours has been a special and interesting journey. You are one of the few presidents who had two swearing-ins, and five years down the line, or almost at the twilight of the first administration, what would you consider the best moment for you? What has the journey been like?

Thank you very much. I am very pleased and honoured to grant this interview. As you said, my journey has been very interesting. It is very interesting, but it has not been easy. It was not an easy journey, but we needed to manage the situation. That’s why, if you look at the journey, we have been very patient and tolerant. Sometimes, some of my ministers will come and say, ‘No, we shouldn’t accept this, we shouldn’t accept that’, but I say, ‘No, we have to look at the environment. The environment is key to us.

We make our decisions based on the environment. And one of the most important things was that we had to make sure of what we promised the people. We promised the people that we would bring about change and that they would believe in the principles of democracy. That was our main objective, and as a leader, that was my direction. It was my thinking, and everybody followed that. Now, most of them come to me. They tell me, ‘Mr. President, this is wisdom from you. What you were saying is now paying off. So, I have been vindicated by most of them.

The challenge was, as you noted, that in 2016, there was an impasse. It was a difficult moment to pass through that impasse. And, after the impasse, it is a government that is a joined government. You know, when you see a government with different parties, different thinking, and different ideologies, it is very difficult. Most of the time, these joint governments don’t last. Most times, they collapse.

But, I am very lucky to make sure I maintain such a government; until now, it has been up to 5 years, and we are finishing the journey. I always tell my people we are finishing the journey on a very high note for the Gambia. On a very high note, we were able to make sure we had big achievements throughout the journey. We started some of our projects, and now we are finishing those big ones. I have just inaugurated the new roads in Basse. You have the bridges. You have the roads. This infrastructure is big, and it is just completed. Last week, I inaugurated the substation, which is the OMVG electrical substation. It is a big one.

It is a game-changer in how people live. We just inaugurated it recently. I have just laid the foundation stone for over twenty health facilities. All the projects are going on as of now, and I have projects that are going on that people have been talking about for 50 or 60 years. There is a road called the Hakaran Road. It is a famous road. It is about 86 kilometres. We have another road that is about fifty-something kilometers long.

We have another road over eighty-something. So, the contracts that are going on for road construction are about 300 to 400 kilometres. They are all going very well, and we are also launching new projects. I have launched the OIC roads. We are talking about 50 kilometres and another 22 kilometres of a six-lane highway. For the first time, the Gambia is going to have flying bridges. This will be the first time we have those.

So, I am finishing on a very high note. And if I talk about the constitution, most of the time, my opposition will talk about corruption, but they will never talk about the economy. Our economy was growing between 1 and 2 percent. It was struggling. Today, we are growing at 6.1 percent in the economy. If you look at the Treasury bills, when I came, interest rates were at 23 percent. Today, interest rates are at 4 percent. Commercial banks were lending at 30 percent.

Today, they are lending at between 15 and 16 percent. We have increased our collection by 100 percent as it stands. And the most interesting thing is that we are using state resources to do most of these projects. I think it was a rough journey, but basically, there are a lot of achievements. We have challenges, though. Obviously, it is a small country. It is a poor country, but we try to manage our resources very well to make sure we impact the lives of the people. This has been the journey.

I think it is okay to call you ‘the project president’. You have done so much, and the Gambia is a huge construction site. We have looked around. We have seen some of these projects firsthand. Another promise you made when you took over was that you were going to open up after 22 years of a government that was authoritarian and isolationist in nature. You promised to open up the Gambia to the world. One of the high points of that is that the OIC, which you mentioned, is planning its summit for next year. Can you tell us what that means for the Gambia, and how else have you met that promise of opening up the Gambia to the rest of the world?

Yes, when we came to power, Gambia was not doing very well as far as international relations were concerned. It was our first policy to make sure we opened up the Gambia and brought back our friends, and we succeeded in doing that. We have a very good relationship with the European Union, and we have to thank them for the support they gave. They did very well for us. And also, the Arab world, We tried to connect the Gambia to the Arab world, connect the Gambia to the African continent, and connect the Gambia to ECOWAS.

That’s why, for the first time today, we have succeeded in being the President of ECOWAS for the next four years, from 2022 to 2026. In the history of this country, they have been trying all the time. We tried everything. Yahaya Jammeh tried for 22 years, even to become chairman. He didn’t succeed, but today, I think we should congratulate ourselves for that achievement. It is a big achievement. Even at the UN, we have also succeeded in being part of human rights. Gambia has also gotten a seat in human rights.

So, this is a big achievement for us. The OIC is one of the biggest organisations in the world. I think it is next to the UN. So, as a small country, to be given the opportunity to host that, I think, is a big achievement for Gambia. Also, because we have been given the opportunity to host the OIC, I travelled to the Arab world. My message was, ‘We are hosting the OIC not as Gambia alone, but as the Head of the Muslim Ummah. We want to host it not because we have the resources, but because we have all this team together to support the Gambia in succeeding in hosting it. If we succeed, it is the Muslim Ummah that succeeds. If we fail, it is the Muslims who fail. So, we need your support’. Because of that message, they came out to support Gambia.

Today, that’s why we are taking the OIC road. If you look at all these projects, we are talking about almost 300 million-dollar projects, and that will have a big impact on Gambian society. We are very proud of that. We are happy that they have confidence in Gambia. They have confidence in the leadership. That’s why they have given us the opportunity to host the OIC, but we just don’t want to host it like that. We want to host it so that it will be part of our legacy. That’s why we are doing all these projects so we can host it comfortably and also host it as a very successful OIC conference. For posterity, people will definitely recognise the Gambia as a small country able to host the OIC. The size of the country doesn’t matter, but what you can do I think that matters most.

Fifty-seven nations—that’s indeed a vote of confidence in your leadership and, of course, in the people of the Gambia, and, by extension, in Africa. You have also been known as a man of peace. You have got touring credentials as an African statesman who is able to open up the space for free speech. It is very unusual in Africa, especially when you have a robust diaspora like we know the Gambia has, which is most often the engine of opposition. What informed this style of governance where there is free speech, where people are able to criticise you openly, and we don’t see what we used to see in those days?

Yes, I think you have said it all, but one thing is outstanding about the whole thing. If you are president, it doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are. So, if you are president, your nature will appear in your leadership. Generally, I have been a very peaceful person. I have been very tolerant. So, I think I reflect that in my leadership. Also, it was an election promise that we would make sure the people regained their freedom.

The people who ran away from this country will come back, and we will allow media freedom. Today, we have over 40 radio stations. Every day, they have a programme on the President’s one. We have over six TV stations. They all have political programmes and so forth. At the same time, in Africa, sometimes it is unfortunate; you have maybe 10 or 20 opposition parties, and they all criticise the government on a daily basis. They will not give you credit anywhere. That is unfortunate, and I think that should change.

Sometimes, I can tell you, these big projects I am talking about—when we inaugurated the Basse projects, there was no print media that made it on their news headline. As significant as that. The electrical substation we inaugurated is a game changer. According to the target, Africa will solve its electricity problems in 2030.

Gambia will achieve it five years early because of this interconnection through the OMVG. That’s a big achievement. None of them put it in the corner of their newspaper. They don’t want it to be seen. So, it’s like every opposition goes against you. They don’t give you credit anywhere. That is unfortunate. It is unfortunate because sometimes we have to accept certain things, and sometimes, because we want to develop our country, I think we should be positive.

We can’t be negative all the time. But they feel that if they are positive, then that means they are giving you credit. They are giving you the opportunity to continue. They think that they can always succeed you because we have big achievements. I increased salaries in this country by 50 percent across the board. 50 percent increment in salary. People thought that I could not do it. 50 percent since 2019, and I increased my pension by 100 percent. Just recently, I promoted 16,000 teachers who had not been promoted for 20 years. So, sometimes, it will be good to give credit where it is due.

I think this is a very difficult thing for us. It is not me alone. It is the entire Gambia. We fought to bring about this change. But the people who ran away from this country are the ones who came back again. They are the strongest opposition against me. All the people who feel that they are highly educated, that they are professors, that… but, when we were fighting, they were under the bed.

Those are the people who came out now, who are my strongest opposition. But one thing is important about the whole thing. We prayed for democracy, and democracy comes with challenges. Democracy is difficult; that’s why everybody is crying for it. It is very easy to be a dictator. You regulate your house. But here, it is not like that. So, I think I am happy. That is a big achievement for me, and it is a big achievement for my government.

In fact, I am excited that you are meeting your energy targets five years earlier, and I was having a chat with some diplomats recently. I was informed that Gambia is one of the only countries in the world and the number one in Africa that is also on target to meet its climate change goals. What drives this? What is the secret behind Adam Barrow?

The secret is that we have been very hardworking. People around me know that I work around the clock. I think they have various names for me. Even if I travel from China and arrive here at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock, the following morning at 8 o’clock, I will be at my desk. I go for a tour, and when I come back, people welcome me in grave hours, and the following day I am at my desk. Always on time. Always working around the clock. My files—no file spends 24 hours on my desk. I deal with my files every day.

So, I am at work all the time. I also maintain discipline. Without discipline, anything you do in your life cannot succeed. You know I am from the private sector. I was doing my own thing. Interestingly, I have never worked for the government. My first job in government was as president. I started from the top. Since I was in the private sector, I was very disciplined. I left my house at 6:30 a.m. in the morning for 10 years. When I go to work, I don’t have a closing time. I brought that to office as president. So I tried to maintain the same thing. I tried to make sure we were very disciplined. Also, we have a single account now.

This is my first such account. When I came, we changed everything to a single consolidated account. Everything passed through that. That’s why, even if there are processes that are run for projects or whatever, before it passes through the audit and everything, sometimes people have to come around me to say, ‘My friend, if you don’t support us, if you don’t help us, if you don’t put your voice, we cannot start our projects’. Sometimes, you will think that some of the laws are against us, but this is to maintain discipline, minimise corruption, and also make sure that we prioritise whatever we are doing. I think that has helped us to achieve most of these things.

Clearly, you are a man who has respect for institution building and policy or procedure. I got to hear it; I don’t know how true it is. It may be one area where we disagree, but I hear you are a strong Arsenal fan. As someone who enjoys football, and Gambia made history for the first time. I think there’s something special about your leadership. Several firsts and Gambia is playing AfCON, the qualifier for AfCON. That’s young people. It means a lot to young people. What else are you doing to encourage and support youths and their development in Gambia?

As you have said, I am a big football fan. I am a big Arsenal fan, for that matter. Despite struggling, we are still hopeful that we will come back again. We believe that our population—about 60 percent or more—is young, and we believe that they are the future leaders of this country. They need our support and everything. So, it is part of my priority as president and a priority for this government. That’s why, when I came to power, it took me 2 years to make sure that we created a levy for youths and sports for the youthful population. I found it very difficult.

We brought the bill the first time, but it failed. I brought it for the second time, and it failed. We brought it for the third time, and it succeeded. Now, they are enjoying that levy. Everybody making any telephone call in this country, including yourself, pays for that levy. We are collecting money there. We are using that money to help youth. Now, we are building a lot of stadiums. I don’t know how many of them In every corner of this country, we are building stadiums for the youth, and we also use those funds to support sports.

There is also a youth enterprise fund. We use that levy. From there, you can specialise in funds. That’s why it is the first time Gambia has been hiring aircraft for their footballers to go and play and come back. I think that is part of what makes us succeed as a country in qualifying for the AfCON for the first time. That’s why I am calling on all Gambians to support this team. We are trying to raise funds. We want every Gambian to contribute so that our team can go there and represent the Gambia and fly our flag very high.

In IT and education, are there other plans for young people?

There are lots of plans. In the history of this country, there has never been an administration that has built schools like my administration. Since I came to power, I have built over 3,000 classrooms across the country. I am building 50 schools a year. I am cutting down a distance of 12 kilometres, 6 kilometres to 2 kilometres between schools. Also, in terms of scholarships, I think we have given more than half; almost 60 percent of the university students are on scholarships.

We know that we cannot accommodate all. I have a small fund here at the State House. I am also paying for schoolchildren. I think two days ago, we paid over half a million dollars for schoolchildren who were not accommodated in the government scholarship. At my own level, we are paying for them because we know they need our support. The future of this country is in the hands of these young people because I am a typical example. 1978 was the first time I came to the city to celebrate independence. President Jawara was addressing us, saying to be very serious and hardworking, and that we will be the future leaders of this country. After 40 years,

In the same venue, I was addressing schoolchildren, addressing President Jawara himself as President of the Republic. So, there is no doubt they will be future leaders, but we need to train them to build their capacity. You understand. We need to prepare them for leadership. It is not education alone; discipline is very important. So, we are trying to prepare this country’s future through its youthful population.

Rooted in Purpose, Driven by Love; President Julius Maada Bio’s Life Long Visionary Leadership
Prev Post Rooted in Purpose, Driven by Love; President Julius Maada Bio’s Life Long Visionary Leadership
Unbundling Zanzibar’s blue tourism tentacles
Next Post Unbundling Zanzibar’s blue tourism tentacles