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Gambia Poised For Peaceful Transition After 22 Years Under Authoritarian Ruler


Gambia is a tiny West African country that doesn't get much press. But now it's poised for an unprecedented handover of power. In a surprise election upset, the opposition coalition candidate defeated the longtime leader. Rights groups say that leader's 22-year rule has been dominated by disappearances, torture and other human rights violations. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been monitoring developments in Gambia and joins us now. And, Ofeibea, a week ago, Gambia wasn't even in the headlines. Tell us what's going on.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: (Laughter) Gambia was just a sleepy seaside destination holiday resort for Britons and Germans. That's what it's known best for. But this upset that we have seen at the ballot box means that everybody here in Africa and all over the world is looking to Gambia because it looks as if there's going to be change after 22 years.

CORNISH: I want to hear more about the players here. We have, as you describe, the outgoing president, Yahya Jammeh, and also now this president-elect, Adama Barrow. What more do we know about them?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, they're both 51. They were both born the year that Gambia got independence from Britain. Gambia is a tiny sliver of land, like a slice of cake, surrounded by Senegal. It is a former British colony tourism destination. And not much is heard from it. But here you have Yahya Jammeh, who came in as a soldier, seized power in a coup d'etat in 1994, and has held an iron grip on this country ever since.

You have Adama Barrow, who used to be a real estate developer and was in the opposition, but wasn't even a high member of the opposition. But because the leader of his party had been thrown into jail for having led a demonstration in April, he suddenly found himself in this position as the candidate of the opposition and now president-elect. So they can't be more different.

CORNISH: So the president-elect Barrow is a real estate developer and an outsider. How is he promising to rebuild or even develop Gambia?

QUIST-ARCTON: He's calling on Gambians in exile to return home to help rebuild this country. He also says that he's going to reverse some of the controversial decisions that President Jammeh has taken recently. For example, he has started the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court. And the prosecutor of that court is even a Gambian and a former justice minister of President Jammeh. He has also said that he wants peace, he wants stability, he wants to build the economy. I mean, Gambia is a country where you have an unprecedented number of especially young men leaving because they feel that there is no hope for them in Gambia. He wants people to stay, Adama Barrow says. He wants everybody to work towards Gambia's future.

CORNISH: And finally, Ofeibea, how significant is this? Because, you know, it's rare for incumbents to be beaten in countries in Africa, isn't it?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's hugely significant, Audie. We cannot overstate how important this is. Last year, in Nigeria, we saw a similar fact, that the incumbent president - and it's so rare for an incumbent to concede defeat - but picked up the phone and called the current president, Muhammadu Buhari. Nobody had expected it here in Gambia. Nobody expects it on this continent where we have the sit-tight leaders who've been in power for 40, 30, 25 years. So what has happened in Gambia gives other people on the continent hope that they won't have these leaders who sit there forever and want to rule and govern them badly forever.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton across the border from Gambia in Dakar, Senegal. Ofeibea, thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.