The presidential election happening in Gambia this weekend will be the first national vote since the defeat of former President Yahya Jammeh by a coalition of opposition parties in 2016, ending two decades of brutal dictatorship. This time around it will be a crowded field with six candidates certified by the electoral commission. Two more – each of whom successfully challenged the rejection of their nominations – will take part as well.
The conduct of the December 4 election will determine if Gambia consolidates its democracy or if it becomes another basket case engulfed in political uncertainty. On the plus side, political parties and independent candidates have signed a Peace Pledge to abide by the rules of fair play and to respect the vote outcome.
There has also been a critical outpouring of support and solidarity from the international community concerning the election. For instance, moving away from a history of boycotts during the Jammeh era, the African Union Commission, European Union, and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy have all deployed election missions. In addition, on November 18 a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the United States Senate to voice support for and encouragement of a free, fair, and peaceful poll. This continued solidarity will be crucial.
Jammeh’s regime preserved the façade of democratic institutions and multiparty democracy. Like most electoral authoritarian regimes, it allowed elections with multiple political parties participating, but under extremely unfair conditions. Due to unprecedented levels of political repression and impunity, the political environment was always volatile, and the opposition was largely, often violently suppressed. During his twenty-two years in power, Jammeh held five elections which cemented his hold on power, giving him a semblance of legitimacy.
Jammeh used state largesse and its resources to get rich and to ensure only one electoral outcome: to win elections. He lost the last one in shocking fasion instead.
In effect, Gambia’s 2016 election served as a mechanism, rather than a catalyst, to oust a dictator. Thus, elections are a double-edged sword: they can either serve the purpose for the rise or decline of authoritarian rule. In the case of Gambia, citizens ultimately showed that elections can be a meaningful mechanism for leadership change and the expression of political will.
A democratic transition?
Since the present Gambian government took office in January 2017 – following Jammeh’s refusal to leave – it has committed to promote democratic values, respect for human rights, the rule of law and to maintain political stability. However, fundamental challenges remain, including a lack of consistent adherence to good governance principles and practices that respect political rights and civil liberties.
Under Jammeh’s rule the environment in which the media operated was a precarious one, characterized by draconian laws, arbitrary arrests and unjust detentions, torture, and physical assaults against journalists. It also included the closure and even the burning down of media houses. Crucially for today, many of the oppressive laws that granted wide powers to the government to restrict human rights – including media freedoms and free expression – on the grounds of national security are still in place.
While the overall environment is much improved from the Jammeh era, the current legislative and institutional framework for governing elections remains inadequate.
The rallying call in 2016 that #JammehMustGo has now evolved to #GambiaDecides2021. The Gambian citizenry has become more politically aware and are more vigilant than ever. The political party system has seen intense dynamism since the 2016 transition, including a proliferation of political parties. In this election, 18 parties and 5 independent candidates have expressed an interest to run.
Additionally – and no less important – civil society is playing its part to hold the government accountable, including engaging in strategic litigation. For instance, earlier this year the NGO Gambia Participates led an effort at the Gambian Supreme Court to hold lawmakers accountable by ensuring that they report on their financial interests – a huge win for governmental transparency that did not exist under the former regime.
Likewise, the Gambian media is ensuring that the country does not return to the authoritarianism that was the norm under Jammeh. For example, new investigative journalism efforts are documenting and doing needed advocacy around governmental corruption.
Onward to December 4
Jammeh’s defeat in 2016 was the beginning, not the end of Gambia’s democratic process. The current transition from dictatorship to stable democracy must therefore be deliberately nurtured and consolidated moving forward.
At the same, there is increasing authoritarianism and repression around the world, in many cases through democratically elected governments. In this context, the December 4 election is an important one to watch as it represents a positive example of citizens rising to demand respect for human rights and adherence to rule of law. Importantly, this exercise can also serve as a model for other countries that are undergoing a similar turning of the page.
The building of democracy and a human rights culture is never a smooth path, nor is there a one-size-fits-all timeframe. But December 4 will nonetheless be a major indicator of whether Gambians can successfully consolidate their hard-won gains.