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Gambia’s Road to Democratic Reform

Since the inauguration of Adama Barrow after 22 years of authoritarian rule, Gambia's democratic reforms have benefited from political will, national ownership, and international backing. However, the country's dark legacy continues to pose risks to the process.

Gambia’s Road to Democratic Reform

Little-known candidate Adama Barrow was sworn in as Gambia’s president in January 2017 after winning the presidential election and navigating a dramatic military standoff that ousted longtime leader Yahya Jammeh, who had resisted stepping down. After 22 years of authoritarian rule, Gambians were euphoric as they saw political prisoners being released, exiles returning home, and the country opening itself to the international community. Gambia also began the arduous process of undertaking the major reforms needed to reestablish a democratic system. In so doing, it would be aligned with the democratic leanings of all but one of the 15 ECOWAS member states. This review takes stock of the progress made so far as well as the priorities, risks, and obstacles moving forward.


The pillars of Gambia’s reform program are outlined in its 2018–2021 National Development Plan (NDP), which was the result of extensive consultations with stakeholders from local government, civil society organizations, the private sector, and international partners. Adopted by Barrow in January 2018, this plan seeks to restore the rule of law, deepen democracy, advance transitional justice, and transform the security sector. The plan is broad in its ambition, reflecting the weak starting point of Gambia’s institutions after two decades of autocratic rule.

The Barrow administration has moved quickly to begin the process. At the government’s request, in March 2017, the African Union (AU), European Union (EU), and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) conducted a joint assessment of government institutions, including the judiciary and security sector, to determine their current state and immediate needs. The findings of this assessment informed the rollout of several reforms focusing on transitional justice and the security sector.

The judicial reforms started with the appointment of Gambian judges to replace the foreign ones that had been appointed by Jammeh. The former leader had long used the courts as a tool to consolidate his power, and judges from abroad were hired and fired with regular frequency at Jammeh’s whims.

Pillars of Gambia’s Reform Program:
1. Restore the rule of law
2. Deepen democracy
3. Advance transitional justice
4. Transform the security sector

This was followed by the vetting and training of judicial staff and recruitment of new personnel, a process supported by UNDP. In June 2017, the government began reviewing laws restricting political and civic freedoms with a view toward repealing them. Guidelines to strengthen the Office of the Ombudsman, which was established in 1997, were also put in place. This office is mandated to investigate the abuse of power and is therefore expected to play a major role in the ongoing reform effort.

The National Assembly passed new bills creating a National Human Rights Commission and a Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC). In January 2018, the TRRC began recording testimony from victims and perpetrators to shed light on human rights abuses committed during Jammeh’s rule. This work is being conducted alongside a separate judicial commission of inquiry that is holding public hearings into mismanagement of public funds under the previous administration. The Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, a coalition of over 80 civil society institutions, is engaging in peacebuilding and reconciliation work of its own to support both the judicial inquiry and the TRRC process. This is a break from the past, when civil society organizations were not allowed to participate in such activities.

In May 2017, stakeholders from the government, civil society, and the international community met to establish a framework for constitutional reforms, one of Barrow’s key campaign promises. The government has supported the popular opinion that the review should be based on broad participation, rather than piecemeal revisions by politicians. In December, it established a Constitutional Review Commission, which will conduct nationwide consultations that will culminate in a constitutional referendum in 2019. As part of this, the Gambian Press Union is conducting awareness programs on constitutional issues and broadcasting the consultations. The government has also pledged to reinstitute presidential term limits, which had been scrapped by Jammeh in 2015. Indeed, the inclusion of term limits is specifically mentioned as one of the guidelines in the Constitutional Review Commission Bill.

A security sector reform (SSR) program, a key element of the NDP, was launched in September 2017 with the goal of establishing an effective, professional, and accountable security sector. Attorney General Abubacarr Tambadou described the government’s approach by saying, “If the judicial and legal sector were the brains of the old regime, then the hand used to perpetrate the atrocities was the security services.” The SSR program places the reform of security institutions within the larger framework of restoring the rule of law and deepening democracy. It was developed in close coordination with the ECOWAS mission in Gambia (ECOMIG) and the AU, UN, and EU, which form part of the steering committee. The other members of the committee are the ministries of justice, defense, finance and foreign affairs, and civil society representatives. By December 2017, it had conducted institutional assessments across the army, police, and intelligence.

The second phase of the process is reviewing capabilities and developing new norms and missions in line with the NDP and will culminate in a new national security policy in 2019. Barrow also moved quickly to replace the feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA) with a civilian State Intelligence Service that is overseen by parliament. Nine former NIA officers are now on trial.


The military is divided between Jammeh and Barrow loyalists, partly fueled by a narrative that Jammeh’s minority Jola community is being discriminated against by the new administration.

Barrow’s government came to power on the back of significant institutional decay, which has posed numerous challenges to the reform process. This is characteristic of other democratic transitions, which often face entrenched rearguard efforts to derail the process and regain the privileged position of those close to the former regime. This is a key reason why more than half of democratic transitions experience at least a temporary backsliding to autocracy—typically within the first five years.

The military is divided between Jammeh and Barrow loyalists, partly fueled by a narrative that Jammeh’s minority Jola community is being discriminated against by the new administration. In June 2017, supporters of the former regime in the southern stronghold of Kanilai clashed with ECOMIG troops, resulting in six serious injuries. The clash heightened fears that the Jola in Gambia could align with Jola separatists in the neighboring Casamance region of Senegal and pose a serious security threat to the new government. In July 2017, four officers close to the former president were arrested in connection with a failed mutiny. In October, 7 senior officers were discharged for misconduct, and in November, 12 were court martialed on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.

It takes a significant amount of time to reform institutions, instill new norms, and nurture their independence. This challenge is particularly acute in the judiciary, which faces immense public pressure to deliver quickly on its mandate. The rapid rollout of the TRRC is a case in point. Experiences from other parts of Africa suggest that truth commissions are a delicate undertaking that must be grounded in the local context. “They are resource intensive and politically explosive,” warns Anna Roccatello of the International Center for Transitional Justice. If the TRRC is perceived as punitive or sectarian, the search for reconciliation and accountability could be jeopardized.

Truth commissions are a delicate undertaking that must be grounded in the local context: “They are resource intensive and politically explosive.”


Gambia’s ongoing reforms have benefited from strong political will, national ownership, and enthusiastic regional and international backing. However, Gambia is still deeply divided, as shown by the lukewarm reception of government officials in strongholds of the previous regime. Genuine political dialogue and reconciliation will be required to ease these sentiments.

The country’s stagnant economy and high youth unemployment, inherited from the Jammeh administration, could further dampen public confidence in the new administration. Recovery programs that generate employment could keep public support high and maintain momentum for reforms in the short term while the economy recovers in the long term.

In sum, despite commendable progress, Gambia’s democratic transition remains fragile. Ongoing cleavages between Jammeh loyalists and supporters of the new government pose a risk to stability. The constitutional review process and reinstatement of presidential term limits offer the Barrow administration a chance to strengthen public trust and demonstrate its commitment to genuine institutional reform. External partners such as ECOWAS have played an indispensable role in Gambia and should remain engaged. Robust regional and international engagement will be vital to ensure that the reforms spelled out in the National Development Plan take root and are sustained.

Africa Center Experts

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