Brexit, America & Gambia
As we draw to the end of another year, there is no doubt that, above all else, 2016 will be remembered for the seismic changes, which have taken place in the political realm. Many have been shocked and disturbed at the developments, whereas others have hailed 2016 as the year of political revolution.
Political upheaval has dominated, as the UK voted to leave the European Union in June and Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America in November. Some speculated, centring on Western politics and the EU in particular, as to which nation might next be impacted with political change.
West African Politics
Further political upheaval was indeed to follow, hard on the heels of the US Presidential election, from an altogether unexpected source. On Thursday 1 December, it became clear that the Gambia, a former British colony on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, had shocked observers by electing a new President. Adama Barrow, a relative unknown, had secured a shock victory over long-term President Yahya Jammeh.
For the past 22 years, Gambians have only known one leader. Yahya Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994. Since then, the 51 year old President has ruled the Gambia with an iron fist. Jammeh has won four elections, all of which have been accompanied by allegations of voter fraud and intimidation. His dictatorial regime has been widely condemned as he imprisoned journalists and political opponents along with reported torture and disappearance. Ousainou Darboe, the leader of the United Democratic Party was jailed earlier this year, for taking part in an unauthorised protest.
A devout Muslim who carries prayer beads and a Koran with him for public appearances, Jammeh claims to be able to heal HIV/AIDS with a herbal medicine. In the past three years, Jammeh has isolated the Gambia from the international community by withdrawing them from the Commonwealth, declaring the country as an Islamic Republic, contrary to the constitution which affirms the Gambia as a secular state, and has stated intentions to leave the International Criminal Court.
In the run-up to the election, seven opposition parties united and formed a coalition intended to oust Jammeh through legitimate democratic means. The coalition backed 51 year old Property developer Adama Barrow, who was reported to have previously worked as a security guard in London.
The stage was set and the opposition were energised, as they held a series of unprecedented rallies and the President faced the biggest challenge to his 22 year rule. Jammeh claimed that Gambia’s unique voting system, which involves voters dropping a marble into a coloured drum representing their candidate of choice, could not be rigged. In the days preceding the vote, internet services and text messaging were cut off amidst an information blackout, which continued throughout election day.
Early results began to appear which suggested that Adama Barrow had won the capital, Banjul. Then amazingly, and against all expectations, Jammeh conceded defeat and called Adama Barrow on state television to congratulate him. He told the Gambian people, “I have made it very clear that I will never rule this country without your mandate and I will never cheat and dispute the elections, which are the most transparent rig proof elections in the whole world.” To Barrow, he spoke warmly and said, “I wish you all the best. The Gambian people have spoken and the country will be in your hands in January.” Barrow won 45.5% of the vote, whilst Jammeh took 37.7% and a third candidate, Mama Kandeh, took 17.8%. The Gambian people rejoiced and took to the streets to celebrate a new beginning.
However, this new beginning was to be short lived. True to form, Jammeh, known for his erratic behaviour, decided a week later to reject the result after an investigation discovered abnormalities in the vote. The Independent Electoral Commission revised the results when it emerged that the ballots in one region were incorrectly counted. The error was corrected, which narrowed Barrow’s margin of victory, but did not affect the overall result. Jammeh announced to the nation that the election was null and void, “I recommend fresh and transparent elections which will be officiated by a God-fearing and independent electoral commission.”
The opposition has denounced Jammeh’s rejection of the results as unconstitutional and it drew swift criticism from the international community, including the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
It seems likely that Jammeh’s actions are motivated by a fear that Barrow will seek to prosecute him for his imprisonment, torture and reported killings of his opponents during his time in power. Indeed, this was one of the first questions put to Barrow as journalists interviewed him on his plans, once he takes office. In response, Barrow cautiously replied by stating that they have no enemies and their focus was on a smooth and peaceful transition of power.
The situation remains precarious in this peaceful country. Efforts from ECOWAS to persuade Jammeh to leave office have been without success. Soldiers have been seen in strategic locations around Banjul and many are fearful that Jammeh’s continual disregard for the will of the people, may result in civil war.
What, if any common ground can be found between Brexit, the US Presidential election and the recent Gambian Presidential election? In many ways, there are few parallels common to all. The United States is an economic powerhouse on the world stage with a population of over 300,000,000, the European Union is an economic & political union, currently representing 28 member states, with a combined population of over 500,000,000 and the Gambia is a tiny country with a population of less than 2,000,000.
The European Union referendum, leading to Brexit, and the US Presidential election received widespread media coverage throughout the world for months leading up to polling day, whereas there was little mention of the upcoming Gambian election in this economically insignificant West African state. Brexit & the US Presidential election were rightly considered as political earthquakes, whereas the Gambian election would arguably resemble little more than a tremor, in terms of its impact upon the world.
However, there is one parallel which can be drawn in each instance and that is the attempt in various quarters to derail the democratic will of the people. Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said he wanted Britain to “keep its options open,” regarding Brexit, despite the democratic expression of the will of the people to leave the European Union. Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election, sparked riots in various cities. Green Party Presidential nominee Jill Stein, citing voting irregularities in Trump’s victory, sought recounts in key states, which in the end merely validated the original results. Finally, President Jammeh has followed suit as he seeks to subvert the will of the Gambian people in a credible democratic election, in a desperate attempt to remain in power and avoid facing the repercussions of his actions.
Whatever our politics, however cynical we may or may not be about the shift in the political landscape in 2016, we ought to be thankful that we can lay claim to a history of a free, open and democratic society, in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Such a democracy gives us freedoms to peacefully disagree, as well as to accept the viewpoint of others, but not to overthrow the democratic will of the people.
Results of Democratic Attempts
The UK is said to be likely to trigger Article 50, beginning the formal negotiation process to leave the EU, by March 2017. Donald Trump is due to be inaugurated as the American President on 20 January. President Jammeh’s term expires only a few days earlier on 18 January, with Adama Barrow due to be inaugurated as Gambian President on 19 January. Time will tell whether or not the standoff between Jammeh and Gambian people will end in violence or in the peaceful transition of power.
The Gambia is at a crucial point in its history and our prayers ought to be for the Gambian people at this time.