By Alagi Yorro Jallow
This is the beginning of the end of an era in Gambian politics. The Gambia is now at a crossroad between the past and the future. The past can never be restored, and the present cannot be sustained. The future is uncertain. Its course will be influenced by a people who are economically poor, heavily downtrodden, emotionally battered and physically robbed, and who face the prospect of five more years under the regime of President Yahya Jammeh.
Gambians are still reeling from the surprising results of the 24 November presidential election in which the incumbent president was re-elected for a fourth term. During the election, 83 per cent of eligible voters in The Gambia purportedly participated in the election. It was the highest voter turnout since the country gained its independence in 1965. The surprise was not so much that Jammeh won but that he won a ‘landslide victory’ in spite of a high voter turnout and running against two opponents, Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party-led alliance (who received 17 per cent of the votes) and Hamat Bah of the United Front-led alliance (who received 11 per cent of the votes). Despite having two opponents, President Jammeh won the election with 72 per cent of the votes.
Despite the high turnout, many citizens chose to not vote as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction with the Jammeh administration. Some Gambians are frustrated because the opposition political parties failed to unite in their campaign against Jammeh’s ruling party. Moreover, the opposition failed to refuse the constitutional amendment removing the second round of voting to change the system to a simple majority, which benefits the incumbent. Further, the Gambian opposition again failed to contest the legal structures of the Independent Electoral Commission, to the detriment of the opposition.
Throughout the campaign period all Gambians have witnessed foreign nationals meddle in the electoral process in total violation of Gambian laws and electoral rule. The actions taken by the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) violate section 104 (7) of the Election Act 2001, which prohibits the use of foreign money in Gambia’s elections. It states, ‘A political party shall not receive any contribution from any person who is not a citizen of The Gambia, or from any corporate or incorporated body.’ President Jammeh ignored this provision and did so publicly by accepting hundreds of thousands of dalasis from Mauritanian, Lebanese, Senegalese and Guinean business tycoons with business interests in Gambia. Yet incredibly, despite all these violations the Gambian opposition and civil society remains mute.
It is uncertain how Gambians will contend with the challenge of living under a repressive system for another term. They face another five years of poverty, blatant disregard for human rights, and state-sanctioned public mismanagement of resources. Can they endure another five years of the kidnapping, killing, and maiming of dozens or hundreds of their kith and kin? Will they tolerate another five years of an arrogant leader who puts no value in the lives of decent human beings?
If President Jammeh has indeed lost the confidence of his people and is not supported by the majority of Gambians, how did he manage to win the election? What factors influenced the outcome? Why is something taken for granted in many other countries – a fair and effective electoral process – absent in the Gambia?
One factor may have been a lack of adequate campaigning by the opposing parties. Before and throughout the campaign period, no portraits of the opposing candidates were displayed in public, not even a flag representing their parties. Very few people were seen wearing their T-shirts or displaying any of their party and campaign paraphernalia. On the other hand, Yahya Jammeh’s portraits, pictures, and other campaign paraphernalia could be seen everywhere, even on public buildings and government vehicles.
In recent years, the whole country has been so intimidated and hounded by Mr Jammeh’s thuggish regime that anyone who openly manifests his or her support for the opposition is inviting trouble. In addition, incumbency was exploited by the APRC to the extreme by mobilising human and material resources of the state to their advantage. In stark contrast, opposition parties and their candidates were too poor to afford even the basic necessities of an election campaign.
Furthermore, President Jammeh’s party, the APRC, as indicated above, had an overwhelming margin of material and human resources. Governors of divisions, chiefs of districts, heads of villages, heads of institutions, prominent members of the business community, the army, police, and the National Intelligence Agency were all associated with the president’s campaign.
Another factor that affected the electoral outcome were the votes of under-aged Gambians who acquired their voting cards illegally by providing false information to the registering officers. In addition, non-Gambians had acquired voters’ cards illegally by posing as Gambian citizens. Each of these groups voted heavily for Jammeh.
In reality, all public servants were required to support the APRC or risk losing their jobs, despite the Commonwealth Memorandum of Understanding, signed by the regime and the opposition in February 2006, which prohibits such actions. Media coverage of the election showed many senior security personnel and civil servants blatantly wearing the regime attire during Jammeh’s victory celebration after the results were declared. Gambians saw civil servants clapping and grinning for him, endorsing every disrespectful remark he made, including his statement saying that he is prepared to kill journalists at any time. In his words, ‘the journalists are less than 1 percent of the population, and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1 percent of the population, you are in the wrong place.’
‘Those who want to be president in this country, they have to wait like a vulture, patiently, for a very long time,’ Jammeh stated at a rally of his supporters. ‘They have to wait at least 30 years,’ he said, adding that he would consider handing over power only once he had succeeded in his ambition of turning The Gambia into an oil producer and a role model for Africa. That is his vision for the country by 2020. At this point, The Gambia produces peanuts but has not struck crude.
President Jammeh met with the press a few hours after the official declaration of his victory. The president, whose hostility to the independent media is well known, has not held a press conference of this kind since 1994. He normally talks only to handpicked representatives of the friendly media houses. Most members of the independent private press are routinely left out of state functions and other newsworthy events.
The state of the media in the Gambia can best be described as catastrophic. The president has virtually succeeded in breaking the backbone of the independent media, by either illegally closing down the media houses that were critical of his regime or reducing them to mere praise singers. Other newspapers have been transformed into mouthpieces for the APRC or have been subjected to heavy censorship. For example, reports on Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) focus on Jammeh’s ‘achievements’ and such things as his farming skills, while ignoring the most newsworthy happenings in the country.
‘If I want to ban any newspaper, I will, with good reasons,’ he said in a press statement. ‘This is Africa and this is Gambia, a country where we have very strong African moral values. . . . If you write “Yahya Jammeh is a thief,” you should be ready to prove it in a court of law. If that constitutes lack of press freedom, then I don’t care.’
The president, 46, a former soldier, also denied that security agents were involved in the 2004 killing of newspaper editor Deyda Hydara. ‘I don’t believe in killing people. I believe in locking you up for the rest of your life,’ Jammeh said. ‘Then maybe at some point we say, “Oh, he is too old to be fed by the state,” and we release him and let him become destitute.’
Throughout Jammeh’s reign, Gambia has been a place of oppression of the media. Reacting to a documented increase in violations of press freedoms and human rights and a skyrocketing corruption index, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board of Directors suspended the Gambia’s eligibility for the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). In its press release announcing the suspension, the MCC noted, ‘A 2004 law forced media outlets to reapply for their licenses and established harsh sentences for all press offenses, while changes in the criminal code enable the state to confiscate any publication deemed seditious without judicial oversight. Since then, there have been multiple documented cases of unexplained arrest and detention of journalists, as well as threats, arson attacks, or official raids on independent media houses. There are also increased reports of arbitrary arrests and torture by security forces.’
President Jammeh first took power in Gambia at the age of 29 after leading the 1994 coup. Last year, tribal chieftains around the country attempted to rally support for his coronation as king. They were unsuccessful, but the fact that he won this most recent presidential election does not bode well for Gambian’s future. As one American journalist stated, Jammeh ‘could well be Africa’s biggest psychopath.’ The question is, how and when can the The Gambian people continue to live under Jammeh’s ‘Tangal Cheeb’ administration.
Alagi Yorro Jallow is founding managing editor of the banned Independent newspaper in The Gambia. He lives in the US.