Unpacking the Gambia’s transition to democracy: Coalition ruled but can they govern?


Brief Historical Introduction

The Gambia is the smallest country in Mainland Africa. The nation was colonized by the British till 1965, when it gained its independence. In 1970, The Gambia became a Republic. Compared to other West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, The Gambia was late to achieve independence, and this is often attributed to the fact that the country was short on nationalist leaders such as Dr. Nkwame Krumah who was pivotal in the fight for Ghana independence. Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara served as the Prime Minister from 1962 to 1970, and then became President until 1994. Mr. Jawara was deposed by Lieutenant Yahya AJJ Jammeh, in an unexpected military coup in 1994. After the coup, the military described itself as the Armed Force Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), on 22nd July 1994, now Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party. The party remained in power for 22 years until it lost the election to Mr. Adama Barrow, a political outsider and an unknown political candidate who campaigned under the banner of “Coalition 2016”.

A Historic Election

The people of The Gambia went to the polls on 1st December, 2016 to elect a new President under the supervision of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the body responsible for conducting and supervising elections in The Gambia. On the 2nd December, the IEC declared Mr. Adama Barrow as the winner of the presidential election. Mr. Barrow surprised the population when final poll results showed him leading with a wide margin: he claimed 43.3% of the vote as compared to Jammeh’s 39.6% support. Even more shockingly, Mr. Jammeh quickly accepted the defeat and congratulated the President elect. Mr. Barrow quieted the scene of deep political unrest by winning the election against Mr. Jammeh, who vowed to rule The Gambia for a billion years and traditionally declared that no election would remove him from power. The historic vote set The Gambia on a new path.

An Unexpected Change

Gambia_Marco Longari-AFP-Getty Images

Photo: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

The Results were later revised by the Independent Electoral Commission on 5th December, 2016 when it emerged that the ballot for one area had been added incorrectly. This did not affect the ultimate outcome of the result due to the country’s “first past the post system”. However, it did reduce Mr. Barrow’s margin of victory.

On the 9th December, 2016 on state television, Mr. Jammeh declared that he indeed would not step down, due to the error of the Electoral Commission. He immediately annulled the election results and called for new election to be supervised by “God fearing people”. This decision was widely criticized by regional and international groups, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). However, without wasting much time, ECOWAS initiated mediation efforts with Jammeh and the new government (coalition).  The ECOWAS delegation was headed by outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra-Leone, former President of Ghana John Dramani Mahama, and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for West Africa and Sahel, Mr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas. These members of ECOWAS visited The Gambia on the December 13, 2016 and on the January 13, 2017 to encourage Mr. Jammeh to accept defeat and step down as the President of The Gambia. This endeavor failed on two occasions.

Why ECOWAS intervened in the Gambia in 2017?

During his 22 years in power, Jammeh had an antagonist foreign policy towards ECOWAS. As a result, the regional body refused to send election observers to either the 2011 or 2016 elections, citing an “unacceptable level of control of the electronic media” by the former regime, and an opposition that is “cowed by repression and intimidation.”

But their official position on the issue is stated in article 9 of the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance states that:

The party and or candidate who loses the election shall concede defeat to the political party and or candidate finally declared the winner, following the guidelines and within the deadline stipulated by the law.

The 2016 election in Gambia was not the first time that the ECOWAS has engaged in mediation. Côte d’Ivoire’s 2010 election presents a similar case. On December 28, 2010, former Presidents Yayi Boni of Benin, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and former President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde arrived in Côte d’Ivoire on behalf of ECOWAS, intending to convince Laurent Gbagbo to resign and go into exile for the sake of his country, while declaring it was Gbagbo’s last chance before the deployment of military force against him. Ultimately, through the intervention of the UN led by France, Mr. Gbagbo was captured and brought to trial in the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity related to the post-election violence.

Similarly, in The Gambia, the ECOWAS mediation team failed to convince Mr. Jammeh to step down during its two missions and ECOWAS member states such as Senegal, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone mobilized troops to forcibly remove Jammeh from power. The military intervention arrived shortly after Mr. Adama Barrow took the oath of office at The Gambia’s Embassy in Senegal. After a brief military invasion and Jammeh losing grip on the security forces, he decided to step down and went to exile in Equatorial Guinea. However, there were other interests at the helm of the intervention as well. ECOWAS wanted to intervene in The Gambia in order to restore democracy and presidential term limits in its member states, a proposal that was vetoed by Jammeh in 2015. In addition, they wanted to set a precedent for cordial relations with the newly elected government. Senegal was also interested to intervene to restore cordial relation with the new government and to end the “[rebellion] in its southern Cassamance region”, a place of vital economic interest to Senegal where a rebel group was sponsored by Jammeh’s regime. As a result, Senegal approved the presence of its military on the soil of The Gambia to ensure peace in the region.

Jammeh’s debacle in the Election

Former President Jammeh during his 22-year stay in power has been accused by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Right Watch of committing human rights abuses. Jammeh operated one of the most oppressive states in the world, where torture, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions were the order of the day, in addition to funding the rebel movement as mentioned above.

Seven months before the election, a protest emerged on the outskirts of the capital, Banjul, under the organization of the supporters by the main opposition Party, the United Democratic Party (UDP). This pro-democracy demonstration called for electoral reforms and for Mr. Jammeh to step down. The consequences were the arrest and detention of the demonstrators and eventual death in custody of Mr. Solo Sandeng, the Youth leader of the UDP and an arrest of senior party officials including the party leader, Lawyer Ousainou Darboe. This incident created a national anger within the population against the Jammeh regime, and many shifted their loyalty to the opposition parties.

pic 1In addition, for the first time in the history of The Gambia, several political parties selected a flag bearer; it was Mr. Adama Barrow against Mr. Yahya AJJ Jammeh. Mr. Barrow managed to defeat Jammeh because of the formation of a “coalition” supported by several different political parties, including the Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), the Gambia Moral Congress (GMC), the National Convention Party (NCP), the United Democratic Party (UDP), and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). His success also depended in large part on the inclusion of women’s groups in the movement – most notably the inclusion of the independent female candidate Dr. Isatou Touray.

The formation of a tribal politics (supporting candidates on the base of their ethnic affiliation) is common in The Gambia. Mr. Jammeh is from the minority Jola tribe and he gained most of his support from them during the election. Under his rule, Mr. Jammeh’s treatment of the Mandinka tribe (the largest ethnic group in The Gambia) was violent and it was often characterized by hate speech. As an example, during his political rally at “Tallinding” before the December 1st election, Jammeh issued several warnings to Mandinkas, describing them as “foreigners” from the Malian Empire, and threatening to wipe them from The Gambia. He dually threatened that a Mandinka would never become President in The Gambia. But as we know today, Jammeh’s claim proved incorrect, because most of the Mandinkas voted for the “coalition” that resulted to the downfall of his regime.

Next Steps

The December 1st election represents a successful transition from authoritarian rule to a democratic system of governance in The Gambia. The election is a triumph of democracy, as well as respect for human rights, respect of the constitution, and for freedom of speech. As evidence of his commitment to these principles, one of the first actions that President Barrow took after assuming office was to ensure that the Gambia would join the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court, given that his predecessor had unilaterally withdrawn the country from membership in both organizations.

There was a question still lingering in the mind of many observers both within and outside the country. And that is whether Jammeh would be able to continue to exert an influence from afar, most particularly on the security forces. During his 22 years in power, it was clear that Jammeh had a tight grip on his security forces as any autocratic leader in the world. Most of the senior military officials in the army came from his minority tribe (Jola), and perhaps this choice was made in a systematic way in order to prevent a military coup. This includes the former head of the Republican Guard elite, General Saul Badjie, and the former head of the State Guard Battalion, Ansumana Tamba are among those who held influential positions within the military. There is a great vacuum in the military that needs to be addressed today, therefore ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) forces are still in the Gambia to restore peace and stability following 22 years of Jammeh dictatorship.

A coalition of political parties won, but much remains to be seen on how the new government will govern the country. So far, the newly and democratically elected government has shifted the country’s foreign policy from one that served personal interests under Jammeh to one that serves the national interests of the Gambia. The Gambia suffered from a two decade-long history of hostility against development institutions in the international community. However, President Barrow is now opening the doors for the Gambia to strengthen its bilateral and multilateral relations with organizations such as the EU, ECOWAS, the Islamic Development Bank, and African Development Bank in order to support national development efforts.

Meet the author

Pa Sako Darboe works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and Gambian Abroad. He is a former intern at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development. This is an update on his article “Transitioning to democracy: The Gambian experience” published at the Eleventh Column.

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