A New Day in The Gambia

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The election of Adama Barrow marks the first democratic defeat of the country’s president

For several years, most citizens of The Gambia had resigned themselves to the idea that it was impossible to remove their erratic leader, Yahya Jammeh by constitutional means. He had won four controversial elections by setting the people against themselves, manipulating the electoral process and deploying military and security authorities to harass, detain and kill those opposed to his dictatorship.

However, in a surprising turn of events, a relatively unknown opposition candidate, Adama Barrow, last Friday pulled off a shocking presidential election victory, putting an end to Jammeh’s draconian 22-year rule. Barrow, a businessman who had worked as a security guard in the United Kingdom, won the election with 46 per cent of the votes.Jammeh has conceded defeat.

Before the election, Jammeh had banned international observers from coming to his country, outlawed post-election demonstrations before capping it by switching off the internet. Therefore, losing was considered to be no option for Jammeh and in the event such happened, nobody expected that he would concede. But he confounded everyone. Rising above himself at a most critical period for his country, Jammeh said he would “never cheat or dispute the election because this is the most transparent, rig-proof elections in the whole world,” apparently in reference to the country’s system of voting with marbles dropped into coloured drums.

In many ways, Jammeh personified much of the contradictions in Africa’s emergent democracy. He came to power as a junior military officer who toppled the civilian government of Sir Dawda Jawara. When military autocracy fell into global disfavour, he quickly metamorphosed into a civilian politician. He organised and predictably won a succession of elections. While his reign lasted, he personalised and privatised security and other national institutions to serve his political ends. In the process, he progressively built a typically African ‘big man’ personality cult that hovered menacingly over his tiny country.

On the eve of his defeat at the polls, he had so elevated religious and ethnic bigotry to a level where he renamed his tiny nation into Islamic Republic of The Gambia. His defeat at the polls is therefore first and foremost the rejection of these regressive trends by the popular will of the Gambian people.

While we congratulate the people of The Gambia for the successful election and hope for a hitch-free transition of power from Jammeh to Barrow, the message that has for decades been sent out in many African countries is that leaders could engage in impunity without consequences. But things are changing and with the example last year of President Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria followed now by Jammeh in The Gambia, democracy is beginning to make meaning on our continent.

The lesson from the defeat of Jammeh which has now given The Gambia a new lease of life is that democracy is not just about winning elections or staying in power, it is about service to the people and there are rules of engagement. And those who seek to get and retain power must do so within acceptable limits.

After the damage byJammeh, rebuilding the critical institutions that will help restore rule of law and good governance in The Gambia will by no means be easy. But that is the task Barrow owes the people of his country.

It is indeed instructive that some years ago, there were prophesies about Africa’s reawakening. Such phrase like ‘Africa Rising’ became the staple of world journalism. Recent economic downturn in many African countries has raised a question mark on such renaissance on the continent. But the new political wave sweeping across Africa, which started with Nigeria and now The Gambia, gives fresh hope of African renaissance. By enthroning democracy, anchored on free and fair elections, the continent’s many problems will perhaps be better addressed.

QUOTE: The new political wave sweeping across Africa, which started with Nigeria and now The Gambia, gives fresh hope of African renaissance. By enthroning democracy, anchored on free and fair elections, the continent’s many problems will perhaps be better addressed