By Edward McAllister
DAKAR (Reuters) – For one Gambian government minister, the ceremonial swearing in of President Adama Barrow marked the new dawn of a democracy he was jailed 22 times for trying to defend – once for every year autocratic ex-ruler Yahya Jammeh was in power.
At an inauguration ceremony at the national stadium on Saturday, Barrow vowed to turn the page on Jammeh’s often cruel and dysfunctional 22-year rule, which was marked by the detention and torture of opponents, rights groups say.
New Agriculture Minister Omar Jallow was a longtime and public critic of Jammeh. That got him jailed repeatedly and tortured on four occasions, beatings from which he still has scars, he told Reuters in an interview.
Jammeh lost a December election to opposition leader Adama Barrow and refused to accept the result, but flew into exile under diplomatic pressure and after West African Ecowas troops crossed into Gambia. His supporters denied torturing opponents.
“Today, I have been vindicated,” Jallow said on Saturday. “I said we can change this despotic regime through democratic means … if we are united.”
Jammeh took power in a 1994 coup. As a member of the former government of Dawda Jawara, Jallow was arrested and kept in a cell for three weeks with other ministers, part of a political purge.
Undaunted, he continued to call for Jammeh to step aside and hold elections to name a successor.
In October 1995 he was arrested at home and taken to a cell at the army barracks in Bakau. A group of men ripped off his clothes and beat him with rubber truncheons. One blow caught his eye, causing him to lose sight in it for more than a year. He was denied medical attention and the wounds healed badly, leaving scars, he said.
Ten years later, he was detained in a tiny cell in Mile 2 prison, an overcrowded, disease-ridden penitentiary known locally as “The Hotel”.
Now, after two decades in opposition, Jallow is back as agriculture minister, the post he held before the government he served in was ousted.
Barrow pledged that freedom of speech would from now on be defended. And he announced sweeping reforms on Saturday to kick-start the flagging economy of the tiny nation, which has few natural resources and depends heavily on tourists and exports of ground nuts.
“Agriculture has to be turned from subsistence to commercial and export-oriented farming,” he told Reuters. “That is the new policy of this government and I am going to work towards that.”
(Additional reporting by Lamin Jahateh; Editing by Tim Cocks and Andrew Bolton)