Soma, Gambia, Jan 24 – They breathed a sigh of relief when strongman Yahya Jammeh finally left The Gambia.
But supporters of the new president, Adama Barrow, say he has a lot to do to get the country — one of Africa’s poorest — on its feet.
“At the end of the month, after I’ve bought a sack of rice, we barely have anything left to live off,” said Abdoulie Sabaly, a 29-year-old teacher and father of two.
Sabaly makes just 2,000 dalasis ($45, 42 euros) a month. “A 50-kilo (110-pound) sack of rice costs 1,300 dalasis,” he said.
Barrow won a December election, but for weeks Jammeh refused to recognise the result, setting off a crisis that saw the new president take his oath of office in neighbouring Senegal last week.
Faced with the threat of being removed by force, Jammeh finally went into exile at the weekend but was accused by a member of Barrow’s team of plundering $11 million in state funds, leaving the coffers nearly empty.
Meanwhile some 60 percent of ordinary Gambians live in poverty, according to UN data, a third of them surviving on less than $1.25 a day.
“We want Barrow to upgrade our living conditions and to create more work,” said Karamba Seady Ba, a shopkeeper in Soma, a pro-opposition town of some 8,000 residents in the heart of The Gambia.
“Life is hard in The Gambia,” said Ibrahima Tounkara, a taxi driver. “In most families, only one person has a job.”
But in another development likely to infuriate critics, a spokesman for Barrow said Jammeh will be allowed to keep his collection of 13 luxury cars and fly them out to his new home in Equatorial Guinea.
At the same time, the combination of poverty and years of political repression have driven many Gambians to risk their lives at sea in search of a better life in Europe.
“Young people go abroad because they have nothing here,” Tounkara said.
The Gambia’s migrants are the largest group per capita crossing the Mediterranean to Italy, according to the International Organization of Migration.
Aside from the shortage of jobs, residents of Soma must also contend with several hours of water and electricity cuts each day.
– ‘Gambians must be free’ –
Gambians have also lived for years under what rights groups have described as a “climate of fear”, with Jammeh going all-out to crush dissent.
Sections of the security services were under Jammeh’s personal control and are responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary detention, rights groups say.
Under Jammeh’s 22-year rule, “we would look left and right before speaking, to make sure there was no danger” of being overheard, said Sabaly, the teacher.
Even after Jammeh’s departure, some of the fears appear to have persisted.
Worried for his safety, Barrow has yet to return from Senegal — and his supporters say they understand his reticence.
“Yahya Jammeh can still inflict harm even if he’s left,” said Thierno Diba, a builder.
He said he hoped that Senegalese troops deployed during the crisis would stay put, to tackle any threat poised by Jammeh’s supporters.
Despite the odds, expectations of change are high in Soma.
“Barrow has to bring democracy. Gambians must be free like other countries,” said Paa Sait Ceesay, a local official.
“We want to have democracy first of all, democracy not in name but in action,” said Khassim Fadera, another shopkeeper.