By Kieran Guilbert and Emma Farge
DAKAR/BANJUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Gambia's shock election result, which saw veteran leader Yahya Jammeh defeated after 22 years in power, could mend the West African nation's ties with Europe, boost its development, and halt an exodus of migrants to the West, analysts said on Monday.
Jammeh, who has ruled with an iron hand since seizing power in a coup, stunned observers and sparked wild celebrations across Gambia on Friday when he accepted his surprise election loss to opposition candidate Adama Barrow.
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Gambia, one of Africa's poorest and smallest nations with a population of 1.9 million, has had tens of millions of euros in aid from the European Union (EU) blocked in recent years due to concerns over human rights violations during Jammeh's rule.
Jammeh had stifled dissent and faced growing criticism from abroad over issues ranging from introducing a tough new law against homosexuality and expelling a top EU diplomat without giving a reason, to claiming he could cure infertility and AIDS.
Yet his defeat and the promises of president-elect Barrow to revive the economy, end rights abuses, and establish democracy represent a watershed moment for Gambia and its development, according to academics, aid agencies and diplomatic sources.
"The Jammeh administration had increasingly reduced its international development options," said Alex Vines of London-based think tank Chatham House, adding that recent efforts to attract funding from Gulf countries had proved unsuccessful.
Jammeh last year declared the formerly secular country an Islamic republic in an attempt to win favor with donors from the Middle East as relations with the West soured.
"The new government will attract attention from Brussels ... Europe will want to try and reduce the number of Gambians seeking to migrate there and will find it easier post-Jammeh to engage with Gambia," Vines told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"CHANGE TAKES TIME"
More than 10,000 Gambians have arrived in Italy by sea this year, having crossed the Sahara and the Mediterranean, making them more likely than any other African nationals to take what is known locally as "the back way", EU data shows. [L5N1E03DK]
"The excitement of having a new government after so many years may keep people from leaving Gambia, at least for a while," said Richard Danziger, regional director of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
"But unless we see more job creation or other opportunities there is no reason for there to be a dramatic change in migration patterns," he added.
Gambia, which exports peanuts and rosewood, is one of Africa's slowest growing economies, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says. In recent years, fears of Ebola in the region had kept tourists away while drought cut agricultural output.
"The economy is in dire straits but the EU and the U.N. are there to help," said a Western diplomat in the capital Banjul.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the EU's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said last week that their institutions were ready to support the country.
"With the departure of Jammeh, the problems with funding should disappear," the diplomat added, citing aid that was frozen by the EU due to concerns over rights abuses.
Aid agencies said they hoped Barrow's victory would spur donors to invest in Gambia and tackle issues ranging from high rates of malnutrition to vulnerability to rising sea levels.
Nearly one in 10 Gambians do not have enough to eat, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"The international community should not wait to be contacted but rather start engaging the new government," said Carla Fajardo, country representative of the Catholic Relief Services.
While celebrations continue on the streets of Banjul, many Gambians say that boosting development and stemming the flow of illegal migration will be no easy task for Barrow's government.
"It (the election) does not mean all the Gambians will find work," said Momodou Jawara, whose sister, once part of Gambia's national football team, drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe in October.
"Change takes time," she added.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)