The Gambia’s presidential election crisis has been of particular personal interest for me. Between 2013 and 2014 I lived in the country as a law lecturer at the University of The Gambia. The experience was a fantastic one and helped me to understand why the country and its inhabitants are affectionately referred to as the “smiling face of Africa”.
It was a year that moulded and shaped me, but also in some respects shocked me. During one of my lectures I looked up to see an unfamiliar face. Students later informed me that the individual was a member of the national intelligence agency detailed to monitor anti-government sentiment.
This, however, is barely the tip of the iceberg of the ways in which Yahya Jammeh, defeated finally in the December 2016 presidential elections, behaved towards The Gambia and its citizens. Since Jammeh came into power in 1994, human rights violations have become a commonplace tool the regime uses to stay in power.
Violations highlighted by international observers include numerous incidents of alleged torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and deprivation of freedom of speech. After an attempted coup in 2014, a number of alleged plotters were held incommunicado. Three later died in suspicious circumstances after being captured.
In May 2015, Jammeh fired all the presiding judges of the Supreme Court, bar one, leaving the court dormant. He was apparently angry at their decision to commute a number of death sentences to life sentences. Last year, a prominent of member of the opposition party died after being arrested while peacefully protesting for electoral reform.
Similarly, elections held between 1994 and 2016 have been repeatedly criticised for being undemocratic and unfairly conducted. This allowed Jammeh to win five concurrent elections and remain in power for 22 years.
After winning the 2011 election Jammeh was so confident he would remain in power he claimed that he was prepared to rule for ‘1 billion years” if Allah willed it.
This made the results of the election held at the end of 2016 so surprising. Adama Barrow of the United Democratic Party won the race with 43.3% of the vote. Barrow’s support was in a large part made up of the youth vote and those disenfranchised by the economic crisis in the country – including the high unemployment rate – widespread repression of freedom of speech, and the mass exodus of Gambian youth on the “back way” to Europe.
Why Jammeh is hanging by a thread
Even more surprising than Barrow’s win was Jammeh’s initial acceptance of the result. This apparent acceptance even included a phone call to Barrow where Jammeh conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent on his win. But the dreams of democracy were short-lived, and provide a stark warning about the fragile nature of the journey to democracy.
Less than a week after the election results were announced the United Democratic Party stated its intention to prosecute the outgoing leader for numerous crimes committed during his presidency. A few days later, Jammeh responded by rejecting the election results. He claimed that, after an investigation, a number of “serious and unacceptable abnormalities” had been identified in the election process.
The international condemnation of Jammeh’s decision to contest the election results was swift. The United Nations has urged him to respect the election results and to transfer power, without delay, to Barrow. The African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the UN secretary-general released a joint statement calling on the government to abide by its constitutional responsibilities and to respect the will of the people clearly expressed through the ballot box.
ECOWAS and Senegal, which is a member and The Gambia’s closest neighbour, have gone so far as to mobilise troops to intervene militarily if Jammeh refuses to step down on January 19, the day of Barrow’s inauguration.
There have also been dissenting voices within the country. Numerous national organisations have protested Jammeh’s decision, including several Imams, the Gambian Christian Council, the Gambian Medical Council and the Gambian Bar Association. Staff at the University of The Gambia have been boycotting teaching until Jammeh steps down.
Finally, a civil society initiative for individual citizens, #GambiaHasDecided, is up and running. The campaign calls for Jammeh to step down, to peacefully transfer power to Barrow, and to restore democracy.
One of the campaign’s founding leaders, Raffie Diab, was a friend of mine while I was in The Gambia. He talked to me recently about the campaign. Diab said the initiative had become a target of intimidation and hostility from state security services. Uniformed members of the security services have also destroyed #GambiaHasDecided posters.
Diab and Salieu Taal, the initiative’s chairman, fled the country after credible reports warned of their impending arrest. Others associated with the campaign have been arrested and held incommunicado, allegedly for simply wearing one of the campaign t-shirts.
Nonetheless, Diab and #GambiaHasDecided are confident and hopeful about the future for The Gambia. They believe that Jammeh will permit a peaceful transition of power over the next few days. Their belief is based on several factors.
First, the recent resignation of Jammeh’s information minister is seen as a sign of his regime weakening.
The other important factor is Jammeh’s legal challenge contesting the validity of the election results. The supreme court declined to hear the case on January 10, saying that it did not have the capacity and could only hear cases in May and November. This is a situation precipitated by Jammeh when he fired the presiding judges of the supreme court in 2015.
Following the court decision, Jammeh vowed to stay put until a ruling was made on his petition, now unlikely until May. He said he and his cabinet would remain in place beyond his constitutional term which ends on January 18. His nationwide TV broadcast came just hours before West African mediators, led by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, arrive in the country on January 12 for a last-gasp diplomatic push to persuade Jammeh to step down.
Diab believes this meeting with Jammeh will apply sufficient diplomatic pressure to encourage him to peacefully step down.
Gambia has decided
But most importantly for the #GambiaHasDecided movement is the change on the ground.
Diab noted that, for the first time since Jammeh came to power, there has been open dissent, and there is a feeling of ownership of the country’s future.
Three years ago when I was living and working in The Gambia this would have been unimaginable. Open dissent and protestation could get you arrested, disappeared, tortured or killed. Government agents were commonplace. In large part, Diab believes this transformation is because Gambians are speaking with one voice.
The #GambiaHasDecided campaign is indicative of real change, and of real hope.
Significant steps have been taken by organisations such as the UN and the African Union. But to help ensure that the will of the Gambian people is respected, the international community and the international media needs to pay attention to this West African nation.
Given that opportunities for a peaceful transition from dictatorship are rare, this is a chance that should not be missed.