The Electoral Saga in The Gambia: The need for a More Sagacious Win-Win Solution


On Thursday, 12th January, 2017 the House of Representatives in Nigeria voted to give President Yahya Jammeh political asylum if he accepts to leave office to allow for peace to reign in his country because, reportedly, ‘the clock is ticking fast.’ And true enough, the clock is not simply ticking fast, it is also doing so very fast as the tenure of President Jammeh expires on January 19, 2017.

In this case, the president-elect, Adama Barrow, is insisting that he would surely take over power on this very date, while the incumbent president, Jammeh, says he will not leave power until the Supreme Court decides on his protest against electoral malpractices in May 2017. Going by the Constitution of The Gambia, it is the Supreme Court that can declare anyone a winner and the president. President Jammeh has referred his complaints about abnormalities in the December 1, 2016 elections.

However, the Supreme Court cannot quickly sit to look at the matter for obvious reasons: in June 2016, President Jammeh sacked two of the 7-member Supreme Court judges and he cannot legally and morally appoint new judges for a case in which he is involved. Besides, many of the members of the court are to come from various countries, including Nigeria. Consequently, the whole region of West Africa cannot but expect a situation of Jammeh’s order and Barrow’s counter-order amounting to an encounter, the management of which requires great caution by the ECOWAS, if it is not to eventually lead to disorder. This is why, in this regard, there is the need to apply a more sagacious win-win approach to the problem, by way of further adopting a more holistic diplomatic persuasion through the inclusion of all the stakeholders in the country.

Without doubt, the vote by the House of Representatives is quite good, commendable and most welcome. It is a desideratum because the long and short of the story of The Gambia cannot be separated from the Nigerian factor. Put differently, there is no way Nigeria will not be called upon to carry the heavier burden in the event of a new ECOMOG for The Gambia. In order to avoid this burden, it is important to seek a better understanding of the dynamics of President Jammeh’s decision to renege on his earlier acceptance of defeat, and then seek a better partnership with the people of The Gambia in the quest for an enduring solution.

First, it is on record that the Independent Electoral Commission in The Gambia had in previous elections not really been independent but quite partisan. From the perspective of a member of the Gambian Diaspora, Pata PJ, the Jammeh administration is not serious about registering the Gambian Diaspora to participate in any election even though the 2007 Constitution provides in its Chapter V (1)(1) that ‘every citizen of The Gambia, being eighteen years or older and of sound mind, shall have the right to vote for the purpose of election of a President and members of the National Assembly, and shall be entitled to be registered as a voter in a National Assembly constituency for that purpose.’

As noted in the Freedom Newspaper of January 26, 2016 in the Gambia, ‘the opposition Group of Six (G-6) in their list of demands to the IEC, copied to the President, Attorney-General and Speaker of the National Assembly, did include the registration of Gambians outside of their borders to participate in the 2016 election. These demands, thus far, have fallen on deaf ears. IEC would argue that they could not afford the finances and other logistics to conduct another voter registration of Gambians abroad but we are all aware of the allegations of voter fraud which IEC is an accomplice.’ There are also ‘charges of voters transported into Gambia from Southern Senegal’ who have been ‘transplanted in places recognised as opposition strongholds on election days.’

In this regard, if the IEC is known to have condoned the ‘importation’ of foreigners to The Gambia for the purposes of election, especially under the same President Jammeh before the December 1, 2016 election, it should not be strange if President Jammeh opted to doubt the election results on discovery of the fact that election results from some constituencies were not computed for him.

Secondly, it should be borne in mind that the political party system in The Gambia is one in which the opposition is not all that strong. The National Assembled is consisted of only 53 members of whom 48 members are elected for a five-year term and four others are appointed. A group of six parties are in the opposition but the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) remains the dominant one, thus making the country a one party state.
In this regard, it is not because the opposition parties were strong enough that they were able to defeat Jammeh. It is because the environmental conditionings, simply by coincidence or by political miscalculations of Jammeh, favoured the opposition parties. This brings us to the main dynamic of why President Jammeh lost and why any quest for peace in the country should reckon with these reasons.

The Environmental Conditionings
The attitude of President Jammeh towards the ECOWAS is not friendly and that is why he sees the role of the regional body as that of interference in the domestic affairs of The Gambia. One possible reason may be the statement of the ECOWAS during the 2011 presidential elections. According to the ECOWAS, ‘the preparations and political environment for the said election are adjudged by the Commission not to be conducive for the conduct of free, fair, and transparent polls,’ and that ECOWAS investigations found ‘an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.’ (vide BBC News Report of 23rd November, 2011, entitled Gambia: ECOWAS Observers Boycott ‘Unfair Poll’.

These ECOWAS allegations were rejected by one of the two opposition presidential candidates in The Gambia, arguing that the environment could not be said to be non-conducive (vide Tamba Jean-Mathew III’s “ECOWAS on the Spot over Gambia Election). Additionally, and perhaps more interestingly but also disturbingly, the report by Umaru Fofana of the BBC News is quite relevant here.

In the words of Fofana, ‘there were allegations of cheating at the 2011 polls which President Jammeh won, although I was there at the time and did not see any sign of that and he denied it. This time, such was his confidence that he agreed to calls for an electoral system to allow on-the-spot counting of votes. Votes were counted at each and every polling station and figures published instantly. Tallying was also done at nearby centres in the open. And counting the marbles in a specially-designed tray was very quick. This reduced the possibility of cheating.’
The implication of the foregoing is that the confidence that President Jammeh had in strongly believing that he had lost the December 1, 2016 election was largely derivable from the role of the IEC in the 2011 presidential election. The IEC said Adama Barrow won with 222, 708 votes, that is with 43.3%, while the incumbent president scored 208,487 votes, representing 39.6%, leaving the balance of 89,768 or 17.1% for Mama Kandeh, the third presidential candidate.

However, December 5, 2016, when it was discovered that the ballots of one area had been incorrectly added to the votes of Barrow, and it was readjusted, thus narrowing the margin of victory of Mr. Barrow from 9% to 4%, President Jammeh began to develop a cold feet on the extent of validity of the entire results, suspecting that there might have been a foul play. The IEC explained that the revised election result does not in any way invalidate the victory of Mr. Barrow. This explanation did not mean much with President Jammeh who is asking for a fresh election but to which the regional body is not favourably disposed.

The issue to address here is not the organisation of a fresh election per se but the need to look at the areas of suspicion and investigate the extent there was support for the complainant. If there is the need to organise a new election in a unit or constituency, the challenge can be taken up. The important thing to do is to allay the fears of insincerity on the minds of Jammeh. Even if, for whatever reasons and principles President Jammeh is preparing for a do-or-die battle in defence of his belief, many other Gambians are not ready for such a battle or war.

In this regard also, it should be noted that it was after the disclosure by one of the supporters of the president-elect to The Guardian newspaper (London) that President Jammeh would be prosecuted for alleged crimes committed during his rule, that President Jammeh became more resolute and has been more intransigent in conceding defeat. This factor has to be specially looked into, especially in light of the implications for the future. For instance, has President Jammeh committed any crimes against humanity? If he has, why should he be protected by anyone because there is the need for peace in The Gambia? Whatever is the case, any ECOMOG intervention in The Gambia cannot but have devastating effects on the whole polity. This is why we need to make haste slowly.

There are some other politico-economic considerations for the loss of election by Jammeh, especially the detention of the main opposition leader, Usainou Darboe, described by Umaru Fofana as the biggest mistake of Jammeh. Darboe is the leader of the biggest opposition party in The Gambia, United Democratic Party (UDP) and has always been a pain on the neck of Jammeh. Darboe has always insisted on being the presidential candidate of the opposition group but every time he did, it was a failure. When he was arrested, detained, and eventually put in the prison, Halifa Sallah, another major opposition critic, and the UDP had the opportunity to reorganise the opposition and face the incumbent president. This situation paved the way for emergence of Mr. Barrow to lead the opposition coalition party against the presidency of Yayah Jammeh. Explained differently, the detention of Darboe provided a stronger platform for anti-Jammeh politics.

President Jammeh not only marginalised the Mandikas, the largest ethnic group but also said they would not have access to ruling the country. Any ECOWAS mediation must therefore not seek solutions to the Gambian saga at the level of the incumbent president only. The leaders of various strata of society in the country should be called to a Town Hall Meeting for collective articulation of the ways forward beyond the question of election. In other words, President Muhammadu Buhari should, in his capacity as Head of the mediation team, seek the evolvement of the support of the people in defining and deciding the way forward. If the Madinkas feel alienated, they need to be carried along.

The Senegalese factor cannot be set aside as well. In early 2016, the Senegalese economic blockade of the Gambia crippled its economy and largely influenced the people against the government of Jammeh. And without any shadow of doubt, Gambia’s importations are through Senegal. This simply means that the economic survival of The Gambia cannot be detached from the Senegalese economic policies. The ECOWAS will therefore need to put the case of Senegal-The Gambia politico-economic ties within a special context.

The essence of the foregoing is to say that the main problem of The Gambia is not simply about election, winning and losing. Leaders seeking mediation outside of their domain cannot rightly come out in the open and say that their hands are all clean. Jammeh has been in power for 22 years. Where were the African mediators in the past 22 years of Jammeh’s reign when he committed the offences for which the president-elect allegedly intend to try him on assuming duty? Sit tight regimes abound in Africa. What is the ECOWAS or the African Union or any other regional body doing about them?

The truth of the matter is that the whole of Africa is, at best, very fragile politically, suffering from dependency syndrome economically. Africa is gradually becoming the new terra cognita for international terrorism and if care is not taken, Africa will soon be destroyed by it because the new terrorism is driven by jihad and any crisis situation cannot but be taken advantage of. This is precisely what the imminent war in The Gambia is pointing to.

Concluding Remarks
African leaders should refrain from quickly rushing to send soldiers to any country to keep peace, especially when they would have failed to prevent such conflicts. Greater emphasis should first and always be put on exhausting the limits of diplomatic perseverance. Use of force will seriously taint the tourism image of the country. It will provide a good basis for international intervention, and particularly the application of International Responsibility to Protect (IR2P). Many Gambians, old and young, male and female, combatants or non-combatants are likely to die. Not carrying the battle to the door steps of non-combatants is the ideal and the law. However, there is no war in which innocent lives have not been lost. Again, lives lost are not on record to have been revived. Going to war to protect democratic ideals may be good but at what costs?

A war in The Gambia is likely to be helpful to United States policy under Donald Trump, especially in terms of his agenda for ‘America shall be great again.’ In other words, Donald Trump believes that, by frolicking around and militarising the world, Americans will earn global respect. On the contrary, the best Americans can have will be infatuation, not love. The way Russia hacked the US election to ensure the victory of Donald Trump is very likely to be the way Donald Trump will also be influencing elections in Africa. The Gambia must not provide any platform or opportunity for any extra-African intervention, especially not only that it has been agreed that African leaders should provide African solutions to African problems, but because such a war would provide the opportunity to test new weapons in the country. The same weapons cannot but be also accessed by international terrorists over which African leaders will have very little or no control.

Perhaps most disturbingly, there is no military expedition or intervention embarked upon in Africa and by African leaders that have not involved calls for help from the international community. In other words, Africa does not have the means even for its own development. There is no disputing the fact that Africa’s development partners account for more than 80% of the costs of development projects in Africa. In fact, how many AU Member States pay their assessed dues as at when due? If African leaders are in a hurry to go to war under the pretext of election victory, why not the same war against economic poverty?

And most importantly, a US-Russia cyber Cold War is already on. Both countries will need allies. The smallness of The Gambia may then become a source of strength in the event of war as both Jammeh and Barrow have their supporters nationally and internationally. Policy makers should simply remember that Russia and the United States were on the same side in the initial anti-Assad project, that is regime change. However, the agenda changed to containing international terrorists first for the US and securing President Assad for Russia. Thus, the Gambia cannot but play host to such changing alliances and self-destruction with what is increasingly becoming an international conspiratorial agenda.

Finally, the Gambia military, which was said to have expressed happiness with the election of Barrow are also on record to have announced their unflinching support for President Yayah Jammeh. Thus, The Gambia will have the national army and foreign armies fighting one another. This is a case in which the application of the rule of ‘prevention is better than cure’ is golden and has to be encouraged. African leaders should stop destroying the people of Africa and all that they represent.

In the specific case of the Gambia, there is the need to hold talks with the generality of the people of The Gambia in articulating the future direction for the country. It is by doing that a win-win solution can be evolved and that it can be of general application.