New Gambian president promises reforms, freedoms

AP News
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Posted: Feb 18, 2017 5:45 PM
New Gambian president promises reforms, freedoms

BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — Gambia's new president promised greater freedom, an improved economy and better education as thousands attended a ceremony Saturday marking his inauguration after a tense political standoff with the country's former longtime leader.

"This is a victory for democracy. It is a victory for all Gambians," President Adama Barrow said to a packed stadium near the capital that included dignitaries and several African heads of state.

The day, he said, was symbolic because it also marked the day in 1965 when the small West African nation declared its independence from Britain and the year in which the 52-year-old Barrow was born.

Saturday's ceremony was held to let Gambians witness a swearing-in that echoed the official one last month. Barrow first took the oath of office at Gambia's embassy in neighboring Senegal in January as former leader Yahya Jammeh refused to cede power.

International pressure, including the threat of a regional military intervention, led Jammeh on Jan. 21 to finally accept his December election loss and fly into exile in Equatorial Guinea. Hundreds of thousands welcomed Barrow's return to Gambia days later.

Barrow has pledged to reverse many of the actions that Jammeh took during his more than two decades of power. Barrow has promised to stay in the International Criminal Court, rejoin the Commonwealth, and free political prisoners.

Barrow arrived at Independence Stadium on Saturday to fanfare, waving from his vehicle in flowing white robes. Gambians also cheered Independent Electoral Commission chairman Alieu Momarr Njai, who had to flee to Senegal during the political crisis after standing by the election results that showed Barrow's win.

After hours of ceremony, including a marching band, Barrow addressed the nation. He thanked Senegal for hosting him and promised improved relations, adding "we want the relationship between the two countries to be a model for African integration."

He thanked Allah, the Gambian people, the African Union, United Nations and regional leaders from the West African bloc ECOWAS for undertaking mediation efforts, including Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was in attendance.

"Gambia has changed forever. The people are fully conscious that they can put a government in office as well as remove it," he said, noting many challenges ahead as the country emerges from rule under Jammeh, who imposed a climate of fear with an administration that detained and sometimes tortured and killed opponents.

"We inherited an economic decline," Barrow said, adding that the political impasse saw businesses shut down, more than 50,000 people flee and over 126,000 become displaced internally. He promised improved employment opportunities, food security and export growth, sanitation and access to clean water.

"Under my presidency, we will try to ensure the sovereign protection and development of all children" and will work to make free education a reality, he said.

The coalition party which backed his candidacy was formed, Barrow said, "to ensure that we'll be one Gambia, one nation, one people."

The international community has warmed to Barrow's approach, with the European Union announcing an $80 million package of support after breaking off assistance amid tensions with Jammeh.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Barrow on Tuesday, saying: "We are here to help."

Senegal's President Macky Sall was among the honorary guests at the ceremony protected by ECOWAS troops. The regional force has secured the country during the transition, which has remained peaceful.

Sall said Gambia and Senegal, a regional power that surrounds the tiny country except for its coast, must strengthen economic and other relations. Many Senegalese live in Gambia.

"We are the same people, and we remain the same people," he said.

Others attending included the heads of state of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana, and the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

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Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Babacar Dione in Banjul, Gambia contributed.