Democracy returns to The Gambia: new President meets Marlborough link delegation
Dr Nick Maurice has been back to Marlborough's long-standing link village of Gunjur in The Gambia to see the return of 'democracy, peace and harmony'. As the leader of an opposition coalition, Adama Barrow was elected President in elections on December 1. After six weeks of tension and the threat of violence, the defeated president - the despotic Yayha Jammeh - was finally forced to leave the country. Dr Maurice reports:
All the signs in The Gambia from the many people I have spoken to are of relief, peace, joy, true happiness as expressed in all conversations, and a desire to move forward and forget the past.
The post election impasse was ended on January 20 following the armed intervention by troops from Senegal. This was not before Jammeh had called a state of emergency, sending many people fleeing the country fearing conflict and violence.
The violence thankfully never happened, the troops 'walked into' The Gambia in the presence of three Heads of State from surrounding countries and Jammeh was persuaded to leave State House. But not before he had 'lined his pockets' with millions of dollars, leaving the country destitute - according to all I spoke to.
He is now in Equatorial Guinea as a 'guest' of that nation's equally notorious dictator. Friends tell me Jammeh will almost certainly face the International Criminal Court once sufficient evidence of his many human rights abuses has been gathered.
President Borrow's inauguration took place on the day Gambians celebrated their 52 years of independence from the British colonial rule. It was a nine hour gathering in the National Stadium attended by 20 Heads of State, representatives of the armed forces of The Gambia and Senegal and a crowd of 25,000 adoring and wildly enthusiastic subjects.
One could not but feel what a privilege it was to be present at this extraordinary turning point in The Gambia's history. It was clear from the atmosphere in the stadium that there was an overwhelming feeling of relief and optimism and universal support for President Adama Barrow
The return to freedom of speech and the ability to talk freely to anyone, expressing views which might be controversial, but in the knowledge that one is not going to be reported to the National Intelligence Agency, is fundamental. One becomes aware that the breakdown of trust between individuals permeated every aspect of life under the Jammeh regime and this is now rapidly dissolving.
While President has limited qualifications for running a country (does this remind one of anyone else?) it is clear that he is gathering around him a team of Ministers with the right background, experience and qualifications who are clearly already guiding him.
Among the Ministerial team is Dr Isatou Touray who spoke at the 2015 Marlborough Brandt Group AGM in Marlborough Town Hall, on the problem of female genital mutilation She is now the Minister of Trade and Industry.
Two days after his inauguration, I had the privilege of a private meeting with President Barrow in the company of three Gambian friends from Gunjur, Madi Jatta, Mankamang Touray and Nabani Darboe all of whom had received training in Marlborough in the late 1980s and early 1990s and now hold senior positions in the country.
The President was aware of the 34 year relationship between Marlborough and Gunjur. We were able to describe the impact it had had on the two communities - not least on those young people from Marlborough who had lived and worked in Gunjur.
The President was full of praise for what had been achieved and expressed his determination that his government should support the relationship in whatever way possible.
I was able to present the President with letters of congratulation and good wishes from Marlborough's MP Claire Perry who had spent a week in Gunjur in 2013 and from the Mayor of Marlborough, Councillor Noël Barrett-Morton, with a present from the latter in the form of a very fine paper weight containing the Marlborough crest.
I had been on the same flight to Banjul as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. The British Ambassador, Colin Crokin, who had been with Johnson at a meeting with President Barrow, told me the Foreign Secretary had expressed the desire of the UK Government to work closely with The Gambia not least in ensuring that The Gambia is welcomed back into the Commonwealth at the earliest opportunity.
In discussions with friends and colleagues on the change of regime it seems likely there will only be a small reduction in the flow of migrants taking 'the back way' from The Gambia to Europe. Indeed, I was told of young men who had left since the appointment of President Barrow.
This is something that the Marlborough Brandt Group is helping to address by providing loans for young entrepreneurs in Gunjur to set up businesses - a highly successful programme which is creating wealth and employment. Such schemes need to be rolled out across the country to give young people hope for the future.
However, I returned to Marlborough with a great sense of optimism on behalf of our many friends in Gunjur - and more widely in The Gambia - and the hope that the international community will recognise the new regime and give it all the support that it deserves after 22 years of cruel dictatorship.