I have recently returned from an all too brief two week stay in the Gambia, just a holiday this time, visiting friends and enjoying the Christmas sunshine, but what a change since I was last there. At that time (April 2016) the country, although nominally a democracy was still under the firm control of authoritarian President Yayha Jammeh who seized power in 1994 when he was an impoverished junior Army officer and has enforced his rule ruthlessly ever since, in the process making himself a very rich man. Any opposition during the last 22 years was nipped in the bud by the security forces and the NIA (the dreaded National Intelligence Agency), and freedom of speech was limited – the main newspaper is nothing more than a propaganda magazine for “The Big Man” as he is known, and other media is strictly controlled. Giant pictures of Jammeh appeared everywhere and most ordinary Gambians did not openly discuss politics for fear of who might be listening but simply accepted the status quo. Those who did raise their voices in opposition to the President might be arrested and jailed, often without trial, and some just disappeared.
Recently however the wind of change has been blowing through the Gambia. I spent three months there early in 2016 and for the first time I heard more than just a few rumbles of discontent on the street with people openly saying it was time for the Big Man to go. Then, just before I left the country in April some members of the opposition staged a demonstration in the streets of Serrekunda calling for electoral reform ahead of the Presidential elections which were scheduled for December. As might have been expected the security forces moved in and broke up the march (which as far as I can ascertain was entirely peaceful), arresting and imprisoning a number of demonstrators including Ebrima Solo Sandeng, one of the youth leaders of the United Democratic Party. It is alleged that some were brutally tortured and very soon rumours emerged that Sandeng had died in mysterious circumstances while in custody. This appeared to galvanise the opposition parties and their leaders came onto the streets demanding the immediate release of Mr Sandeng or his body. They too were arrested and imprisoned pending court appearances charged with various offences relating to protesting without a permit and disobeying the security forces.
Their trial took several months during which time the defendants were denied bail, the defence lawyers walked out, and the leader of the UDP, Ousainou Darbo, himself a veteran human rights lawyer refused to defend himself as he believed the verdict was a foregone conclusion. He was probably right as the judges are appointed by Jammeh, so there was little likelihood of a free and fair trial. The accused were found guilty and jailed.
By now the elections were approaching and with the main opposition leaders behind bars Jammeh no doubt thought he had the situation under control. Instead his actions seemed to convince the opposition to unite and form a coalition behind Adama Barrow, a real estate agent with no previous government experience, and in the short period allowed them they began an election campaign. Jammeh was sure of victory and trumpeted to the world the transparency and fairness of the Gambian electoral system whereby voters drop a marble to signify their vote into a drum bearing the name and colours of their chosen candidate. I was convinced the vote would be rigged in his favour – the internet and external telephone communications were blocked for 24 hours – so I was absolutely amazed to hear on 2nd December that Adama Barrow had won the majority vote, and even more amazed to hear Jammeh had conceded defeat on State television. Friends in the Gambia were jubilant and told me of widespread celebration with crowds dancing in the streets and tearing down the images of Jammeh which had until then hung from every lamp post and billboard. The Gambia had decided.
A week later the story was very different – Jammeh appeared on television utterly rejecting the results, citing electoral irregularities and calling for fresh elections. This may have been due to an announcement by the Independent Electoral Commission that they had made an error when collating the results from one region (it appears an error in their arithmetic affected the number of votes allocated to each candidate and although it did not affect the overall result it had narrowed Barrow’s margin of victory). Alternatively it may have been due to an injudicious statement by a member of the opposition who told an English newspaper that the new administration would seek to have Jammeh indicted for crimes carried out by his regime. Whatever the reason for the U-turn, Jammeh was digging his heels in and refused to be swayed by a delegation of Heads of State from ECOWAS (Economic Organisation of West African States – i.e the other countries in the region) asking him to abide by the results and step down. In view of his refusal ECOWAS subsequently declared that they would if necessary use military force to remove him and this decision has since been ratified by the African Union, although at present they are watching developments but taking no action. General Badjie, Chief of the Defence Staff for the Gambia initially pledged loyalty to President-elect Barrow, but later changed his mind reportedly saying that it was Jammeh paid his wages. He has since published a letter in the pro-Jammeh newspaper pledging his allegiance and that of the Army, although the Gambian armed forces may well be split in the event of conflict – many of the higher ranks have been promoted on the basis of loyalty to Jammeh, but it is unclear how the common soldiery would stand, particularly if faced with a superior, better equipped, better trained outside force.
Jammeh and his political party the APRC have issued petitions in the Supreme Court contesting the results of the election and these are due to be heard tomorrow (10th January). The Supreme Court has not sat for several months as there were not enough judges to form a quorum, but it appears that the outgoing President has now imported more from outside the country to sit with the (Nigerian) Chief Justice and hear his petition. There are currently conflicting reports about these judges, some saying that they arrived in the Gambia two days ago, others saying that they have not yet arrived. The Head of the Independent Electoral Commission has meanwhile fled the country after receiving threats to his life.
Following the elections which were considered by most of the international community to be free and fair, President elect Barrow’s mandate has been recognised by many countries and he is due to be sworn in on 19th January, the day outgoing President Jammeh’s mandate ends, so it is possible if Jammeh refuses to step down that Gambia will for a time have two Presidents. The political crisis continues but it seems from my conversations over the past two weeks with many ordinary Gambians in Kombo (the densely populated coastal strip) that they overwhelmingly support Barrow although in the more remote inland areas the situation may be different. The Gambia Radio and Television Service is controlled by Jammeh who in the past week has ordered the closure of four or five of the private radio stations, perhaps because they have been giving airtime to Barrow’s supporters and presenting the population with an alternative view to his own.
In Kombo there is an increased military presence on the streets and rumours abound. Jammeh is said to have withdrawn millions of dalasi from the Central Bank and packed his luxury cars and other goods into containers for shipping to Mauritania; he is alleged to be recruiting mercenaries from Liberia, Mali, and Sierra Leone to fight on his behalf; it is said that security chiefs have been told that if they attempt to flee the country they will be killed along with their families; there are allegations of plans by Jammeh to prevent Barrow’s inauguration; of attempts by APRC mobilisers to increase the show of support at the Supreme Court hearing by promising bags of rice to all who attend wearing Jammeh’s colours; of people wearing opposition T shirts being arrested and detained, etc., etc. Although they have widespread circulation it is difficult to verify any of these rumours so, for the time being, we must watch and wait as the situation unfolds further.
My personal belief is that the majority of Gambians want change and that sooner or later Jammeh must go. The question is “When, Where and How?”. In his New Year address to the nation he anounced categorically that he would not step down although he tried to present his stance as being one of fighting on behalf of Gambians against a foreign aggressor, in this case ECOWAS. Most of the Gambians I spoke to since that night however were quite clear that he was not fighting on their behalf, but only to maintain his own position.
His opponent President elect Barrow has asked for a three year term in office to achieve change but the new administration have a challenge before them which I believe will take considerably longer. Gambia is a very poor country and relies heavily on imported goods including foodstuffs. Foreign investment is needed but has been declining recently, probably because of Jammeh’s erratic behaviour and anti-western stance. The agricultural sector needs modernising to feed the rapidly growing population and the huge numbers of young people need better education and training to give them skills which will enable them to earn a living. Corruption in government needs to be tackled, and the coalition needs to ensure that they continue to work together long term. It will be a difficult task, made more difficult if as seems likely Jammeh refuses to go peacefully.