The sudden rejection of the recent results of the presidential election by the outgoing President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, poses a serious threat not only to the country but the entire West African sub-region. Shola Oyeyipo and Segun James write
His concession call was shockingly the news and not the fact that he was defeated in an election after 22 years of sitting tight in office. The world, Africa especially, had suddenly begun to see the outgoing President of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh through a different lens of positive connotations. He may not have been a bad guy after all, a majority was tempted to infer. But that was to last a few days before Jammeh manifested his true nature and bungled it all. In a dramatic twist of events, he rejected the results of an election, widely acclaimed to be free and fair and won by Adama Barrow. And yet, in a fit of momentary madness and weakness for power, he shocked the world.
The Gambia, Their Gambia
Gambia, a predominantly tourism and farming-dependent nation, is one of the West African countries with peculiar political characteristics. Since she attained independence from the United Kingdom on February 18, 1965, the country has had just two leaders: Dawda Jawara, who ruled from 1970 till 1994 and Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a coup that year as a young army officer.
Jawara, in his case, became the president, precisely on 24 April 1970, when Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth, following a second referendum and he was seen to have subdued opposition to retain power.
He was re-elected five times. There was a bloody coup attempt on his government on July 29, 1981, where an estimated 800 people were killed. It badly affected the economy amidst widespread allegations of corruption against those in government.
Eventually, in 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) took over power from Jawara and disbanded all forms of opposition political activities. It was then that Jammeh, who was the chairman of the AFPRC, was named as head of state at age 29.
Despite their protracted reigns, Gambia is renowned as a largely poor country, where about a third of the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 per day. The country is home to only about two million people but reputed to be one of the places with highest unemployment rate in the world. Gambians feared and persevered under their two leaders for decades.
The Man, Jammeh
Born May 25, 1965, Jammeh, 51, has remained the President of The Gambia since the 1994 military coup. He was elected as President in 1996; he was re-elected in 2001, 2006, and 2011 until this 2016 election, where he was defeated by Adama Barrow.
he conceded defeat on December 9, 2016, in a phone to Barrow and a few days later, rejected same on the grounds of “unacceptable abnormalities”.
he conceded defeat on December 9, 2016, in a phone to Barrow and a few days later, rejected same on the grounds of “unacceptable abnormalities”.
Somewhere along the line in his government – in April 2006, the regime was unsettled by a coup attempt, following which 27 people were arrested. As a leader in the 21 century, Jammeh has been very unfriendly with the media. There have been cases of alleged human rights abuses hanging on his neck. There are dozens of imprisonments, disappearances and unresolved murder cases.
Jammeh has remained an unrepentant anti-gay. He was once quoted to have said to a crowd: “If you do it in the Gambia, I will slit your throat. If you are a man and want to marry another man in this country and we catch you, no one will ever set eyes on you again, and no white person can do anything about it.” This was cited in The New York Times of December 7, in its editorial tagged Jammeh as a “despot”. Jammeh, who has been in charge, amid global criticism, was quoted to have said he was prepared to stay in power for a billion years if that’s how long it took to execute his vision for Gambia.
Though Jammeh looked forward to staying in office much longer, at least, going by his recent actions, his government met its waterloo when on December 1, 2016. He lost the presidential election to Barrow of the coalition. In what was already winning him commendation, the out-going president conceded defeat and said he would hand over power and leave office in January 2017.
The evolving political scenario, however, took a new turn last Friday when the outgoing president said on state television that he was rejecting the results of the election that ousted him, calling for new elections. He alleged irregularities, from transposed numbers in tabulation to missing numbers that he said left in question the results.
President-elect Barrow said Jammeh’s action is damaging The Gambia’s democratic credentials. He said he was not surprised by his change of heart and he assured the people that he would not allow the will of the people to be subverted.
“We are calling on Mr. Jammeh to respect the will of the people and will hold him responsible for anything that happens in this country and its people. We want Mr. Jammeh to honour his pledge to hand-over power to Mr. Barrow in January in the interest of peace and the well-being of this country”, he said.
Situation report from The Gambia as at press time had it that the situation was tense in the country. The government promoted 49 Army officers, Jammeh flew his family abroad, media houses and power switched off and soldiers are everywhere. He appears ready for war.
Fear of the Unknown
Right now, in The Gambia, astrologers are probably not among those celebrating the country’s election result. Before the election, they probably would have assured outgoing President Jammeh that he would win the last presidential election without hassles. But he lost. And what’s more, they could also not have been able to predict his reaction when he conceded defeat and congratulated his opponent.
But barely a week after such an unprecedented action by an African dictator, who had ruled his country for 22 years, Jammeh truly rejected the results of the election and called for a rerun. He claimed to have rejected the outcome of the election he lost to Barrow, only days after he conceded defeat to him in a public address, followed by a phone call.
Unfortunately, the fresh announcement he made on state television threw the future of the West African country into doubt after the unexpected election results ended Jammeh’s 22-year rule. His conceded call and speech on state TV had prompted wild celebrations over the ending of a government that human rights groups accused of detaining, torturing and killing opponents.
“After a thorough investigation, I have decided to reject the outcome of the recent election. I lament serious and unacceptable abnormalities which have reportedly transpired during the electoral process. I recommend fresh and transparent elections, which will be officiated by a God-fearing and independent electoral commission,” he said. Jammeh’s announcement presented an unexpected and fearful challenge to the incoming Barrow administration, which was already grappling with how to take the reins of power and deal with the army that, for two decades, was loyal to the president.
The latest official figures gave Barrow a narrower win than initially announced – 43.29 per cent of the votes for Barrow and 39.64 for Jammeh. Voter turnout was at 59 per cent.
Tension in The Gambia
Since the development, soldiers have been seen placing sandbags in strategic locations across the capital, Banjul on Friday, a development that triggered widespread unease among the already-spooked population, who had been panic-buying food before the vote, due to fear of unrest.
Opposition spokeswoman, Isatou Touray, on social media, criticised a “violation of democracy” and called for people to “remain calm, lucid, vigilant and not retreat.”
Already reactions have started following the U-turn made by Jammeh. The African Union called Jammeh’s rejection of the results “null and void” since he had already conceded defeat. “The Chairperson of the Commission strongly urges President Yahya Jammeh to facilitate a peaceful and orderly transition and transfer of power,” AU chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said, also calling on Gambia’s security forces to remain neutral.
The US state department said in a statement that Jammeh’s rejection of the results was an egregious attempt to undermine a credible election and remain illegitimately in power.
Senegal’s foreign minister, Mankeur Ndiaye, called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and “solemnly” warned Jammeh not to harm Senegal’s interests or its citizens in Gambia.
Senegal, which has Gambia’s only land border, and entirely surrounds the small riverside country, is a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Its army intervened in Gambia in 1981, during a coup.
A Recap of the Election
The Gambian presidential election of 2016 was held on December 1, 2016 and in a surprise showing, opposition candidate Barrow defeated long-term incumbent Jammeh. The election marked the first change of presidency in The Gambia since a military coup in 1994, and the first transfer of power by popular election since independence from Britain in 1965.
Before the final results were announced, Jammeh graciously conceded defeat, shocking a populace that had expected him to retain power. The final official results showed Barrow winning a 43.3% plurality, achieving a 3.7% margin of victory over Jammeh’s 39.6% – with a third candidate, Mammah Kandeh, receiving 17.1% of the votes. Following the election, 19 opposition prisoners were released, including Ousainou Darboe, the leader of Barrow’s United Democratic Party (UDP). There was widespread celebration of the result by the opposition, along with some caution over whether the transition would proceed without incident. The President of the Gambia is elected in one round by plurality vote for a five-year term.
Africa’s Many Examples of Jammeh
Zambia’s President, Edgar Lungu won re-election by a close margin (50.35%) of the vote) over his closest challenger, Hakainde Hichilema who polled 47.67%. Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) rejected the result, saying it would file an appeal in the Constitutional Court. The opposition accused election officials of fraud during the counting.
In a statement, Hichilema said the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) had “effected a coup on Zambia’s democratic process”. Over 130 people were arrested following protests against the result. But Lungu’s victory was very much in line with the broader trend in African elections.
Data from the African Development Bank (AfDB) and Africapedia examining presidential election results from 1960 to 2016 shows that incumbents or ruling party candidates in Africa win with no contestation 60% of the time.
In a quarter of presidential election results, there is some contestation that ends up in either a political standoff or coalition government. In 15% of cases, incumbents have lost and accepted defeat without putting up a fight. This includes ruling party nominees, who lot and conceded, such as Uhuru Kenyatta, who was the ruling party candidate in 2002, but was defeated by opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki.
The working paper from AfDB, which collates data on presidential and parliamentary elections in Africa since 1960, indicates “incumbent regimes tend to win elections they organise with a 71% probability.” When the incumbent loses, the analysis shows they tend to reject the results. Seventy-nine per cent of incumbent losses have been contested by the regime.
The data also shows that challengers tend not to contest election results when incumbents are declared the winner, putting up a challenge to election results only 12% of the time. There’s a good reason they don’t bother to go to court. No court in Africa has ever overturned a presidential election result in favour of the challenger. Judgments have always favoured the incumbent candidate, the candidate sponsored by the ruling party, or the presumptive winner.
In fact, just one judicial ruling has ever reversed announced results and that was Cote d’Ivoire in the wake of the 2010 elections. But its effect was actually the same as other decisions that uphold disputed elections – the court found in favour of the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who was believed to have clearly lost the election. Still, even getting a lousy judgment is something that not all challengers will have the opportunity to chase.
Tanzania seems to be the only African country with a constitutional provision that actually bars its judiciary from hearing challenges to presidential elections. In Article 47 (1), the Tanzanian Constitution categorically states: when a candidate is declared by the Electoral Commission to have been duly elected in accordance with this article, then no court of law shall have any jurisdiction to inquire into the election of that candidate.
Very often, courts throw out presidential election petitions on procedural rules and technicalities, rather than the substance of the case. Kaaba highlights a number of technical knock-outs on petitions, including a 1997 one in Kenya, pitting challenger Mwai Kibaki against incumbent Daniel Arap Moi.
At least 20 sitting presidents/prime ministers have been defeated at the ballot in Africa. This list is just those sitting presidents, who were eligible to vie or ran for reelection, and lost. Kibaki’s case was dismissed because he had not personally served Moi with court papers. Kibaki served the petition through a notice in the Government Gazette, arguing that as president, Moi “is surrounded by a massive ring of security, which is not possible to penetrate”. But the court threw out the case on the basis of its improper service.
Few countries have suffered political earthquake so devastating, or have been less prepared for such a calamity as the Gambia as far as the consequencies of this election are concerned. The country of a little more than two million people has witnessed much political tribulations in the past. But the rejection of the election result may however break the tiny nation in fragments that would take a miracle to mend, most especially since the country is divided along religious line between the Christians and Muslims.
In the past, Jammeh, a Muslim cleric and former soldier has used religion to hold onto power. In order to placate the Muslim and retain their loyalty, Jammeh reduced the working days in the country from five days to four days, thereby making the country the only one in the world with a three day weekend beginning from Thursday till Sunday.
For Jammeh, It’s a Tough Call
From all indications, religion is going to play a heavy role in the battle for the soul of the Gambia. His opponent is a Christian. African leaders have been somewhat mute since Jammeh made his turnaround on the election results, but when history comes to assess African leaders’ response to the situation in the Gambia, it may judge them negatively.
Mr. Morenikeji Saliu, a Lagos-based legal practitioner, said “Nigeria in particular must rise to the Gambian challenge as it did in Sao Tome and Principe during the time of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as president, thereby saving democracy and stopping coup plotters from getting powers through the barrel of the gun.”
This sentiment was also shared by Alhaji Ibrahim Olawepo from Omu-Aran in Kwara State, who said a former Nigerian president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, has set a standard by conceding defeat, an unprecedented action which African leaders must not allow to be destroyed by the likes of Jammeh.
“President Muhammadu Buhari must stand up to this challenge as long as we call ourselves the leader of Africa. We must stop “stay put” leaders, who have lost elections and are bent on perpetuating themselves in office forever.”
If the president visits his twitter page frequently he would have seen the multitude of protesters reacting to his utterance. One of such is Magufuli Wa Pombe, who said: “Africa kills her sun! This is what Yahya Jammeh has just done to the continent. Sad for Africa!
According to Chuka Umanna, “A message to defeated Gambian President Yahya Jammeh: respect your people, respect democracy, and go. We’ve had enough of dictators in Africa”
On her part, Diane Abbott said: “Gambian leader, Yahya Jammeh rejects election result. Worrying, Gambia’s future looks uncertain now while Sam Phatey asked defeated president: “You said it was the will of Allah and that you will never question Allah. Why are you questioning Allah now?”
There is no doubting the fact that Gambia is in for a tough time that is not going away anytime soon. But before the development degenerates any further, the world must unite over the Gambian situation and fix this mess now. Should Jammeh get away with this daylight robbery, then, a new standard in democratic malfeasance might have been set and indeed, the whole of Africa, beyond the shores of the western sub-region will pay for it.