Pa Sako Darboe

Editor’s Note: On 1 December 2016, something extraordinary happened in the Gambia, a small country in the western coast of Africa surrounded by Senegal. Its people, for the first time in two decades, went to free, fair, and peaceful polls. Thus began an intriguing chapter in this restive country’s political history, marked by a peaceful transition to democracy, prevalence of rule of law, calculated regional diplomacy, and a sense of political maturity that is usually seen as been ‘uncharacteristic’ of West African polities. For countries and regional alliances around the world, there is a bigger lesson to draw from the Gambian experience of democratic transition – that a peaceful, institutionally-managed transition to (or restoration of) democracy is possible when political consensus is duly backed and sustained by a sincere aspiration for popular rule, not just within the country but also across the immediate region. 


An Eventful Election

The Gambia is a small country in West Africa, surrounded by Senegal. It gained independence from the British in 1965, following which it became a Republic in 1970. Right after independence, Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara became the first head of state of the country, staying at the helm for 30 long years. In 1994, he was deposed by Lieutenant Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh – a junior army officer then – in a bloodless military coup. Jammeh ruled the Gambia for 22 years with an iron, eventually losing out to a relatively unknown candidate and political outsider – Adama Barrow – in a historic election last year.

The people of the Gambia went to the polls on the 1 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 2 December, the IEC declared Adama Barrow – who accrued 43.3% of the vote-share compared to Jammeh’s 39.6% – as the winner. Even more surprisingly, Jammeh quickly conceded defeat and congratulated the President-elect. For a brief moment, it seemed like the Gambian people had successfully outsmarted its ruthless and defiant leader through due process. But, something else happened right then.


The Turnaround

On 5 December 2016, when the results were revised by the country’s electoral commission, it emerged that the ballots for one area were added incorrectly. However, the IEC announced that the error, which also added votes to other candidates, had not changed the status quo of the results, owing to the country’s ‘first past the post’ system. But, it did narrow Barrow’s margin of victory.

On 9 December, Jammeh, in a televised broadcast on state TV, declared that he would not step down. He claimed that there had been unacceptable error and demanded fresh election. Basically, Jammeh annuled the election results. Subsequently, he challenged the election results at the country’s Supreme Court. But, lack of judges in the court hindered the progress of the hearing. Intriguingly, the Supreme Court of Gambia has no sitting judges, and most of judges emanate from neighbouring countries of Nigeria and Sierra-Leone.

The annulment of the election was condemned by the United Nations (UN), ECOWAS, and the European Union (EU). However, without squandering any valuable time, ECOWAS initiated a decisive and intensive process of diplomatic manoeuvrings with the Gambian government. Four West African leaders – from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra-Leone, and Liberia – visited the Gambia in December 2016 and January 2017, in an attempt to persuade Jammeh to accept the will his people. This endeavour failed twice.

Ultimately, ECOWAS was forced to bring in the boots. Beginning 19 January, member states began deploying their armed forces to the Gambia, bringing together a force of 7000 soldiers as against the Gambian army’s 2500. After a painstaking military invasion that led to localised violence between pro-Jammeh armed groups and the regional armies and the displacement of thousands, Guinea’s President Alpha Conde and Mauritania’s President Ould Abdel Aziz came in to make the final push. Jammeh, finding himself cornered, finally decided to step down and went to exile in Equatorial Guinea. Thus ended more than two decades of autocratic rule.

Why did Jammeh Lose?

For the first time in the Gambia’s history, the different opposition parties selected one flag bearer – Barrow – to go against an immensely powerful and power-hungry incumbent. Barrow managed to defeat Jammeh largely because of the bountiful support lent by the opposition parties to him, under the umbrella of ‘Coalition 2016’.

These anti-Jammeh parties included the Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), the Gambia Moral Congress (GMC), the National Convention Party (NCP), the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and the Gambia Party for Democracy and Progress (GPDP). Significantly, his landmark success also partially depended on the convergence of women’s groups, and especially the inclusion of the independent female candidate and anti-female genital mutilation activist Dr. Isatou Touray.

On the other hand, Jammeh himself contributed to his own defeat. He was the kind of leader who would not bat an eyelid before rounding up or murdering political opponents. During his rule, human rights groups routinely accused his administration of perpetrating human rights violation, extra-judicial killings, and detentions without trial.

In April 2016, seven months before the election, a rare protest happened in the outskirt of the capital city of Banjul. This pro-democracy demonstration led to the detention and eventual death-in-custody of the youth leader of the main opposition party (UDP), Solo Sandeng, in addition to the arrest of several opposition leaders. This contributed towards the consolidation of popular anger against Jammeh. Naturally, many shifted their loyalty to the opposition parties.

After the 2011 polls, which drew criticism from some regional bodies and appreciation from others, the confident Jammeh asserted, with much pride, that he was focusing on the 2016 elections. This, he did by propelling the Gambia’s version of ‘Vision 2020’ – an agenda for comprehensive regional development formulated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But, as an authoritarian’s fate would have it, the 2016 election results were counted at spot at various polling stations within the country and the results immediately declared, unlike in 2011.

Also, unlike other West African countries, the Gambia used marble to votes instead of paper ballots, perhaps in a systematic attempt to curb rigging. Most crucially, the coming together of an unprecedented coalition force distinguished last year’s elections from 2011’s. However, one thing remained unchanged – the ECOWAS stayed away from observing polls for a second time, just like in 2011 when it cited an “unacceptable level of control of the electronic media” by the then party in power and an opposition that is “cowed by repression and intimidation”.

Where to now?

The 2016 election essentially translates into the triumph of democracy in the Gambia, rule of law, constitutional term limits, and respect for human rights and freedom of speech. The election also entailed the smooth operation of political processes within the country and inclusiveness in order to ensure successful transition from an authoritarian to a democratic system of governance.

The new President should take categorical steps to repair the image of the country, so as to restore credibility at the global stage. For starters, he has stated that the Gambia will join the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court (ICC) after his predecessor withdrew the Gambia both the two organisations, drawing widespread international condemnation. The establishment of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) also paved the way for a comprehensive transition towards democracy.

Much remains to be seen as to what and how the new Gambian government and its people make of their grand political success.

Pa Sako Darboe is working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and Gambians Abroad, and hails from Bureng Village in The Gambia.

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  1. Wonderful story Pa. Very well done. Also since I consider myself a bit of a west African, I kind of understand how democratic and inclusive are the states in West Africa. But things are changing, will of the people has started counting. Saw that in Nigeria and now ECOWAS has forced it’s hand in Gambia. Keep writing.


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