The Re-election of Gambian President Raises Hope for Justice
Samir Bhattacharya

On 4th December 2021, The Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa, held its presidential election. The present election can be viewed as a strong statement in support of successful transition towards a democratic society. To recall, in the last election which took place five years ago, the people of Gambia rejected their authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh through a democratic election. Thus, the present election happened to be the first one in 27 years when the name of the ousted and exiled dictator Jammeh was not present on the Gambian ballot. The example of Sudan after Bashir or Egypt after Mubarak exemplifies how a transitioning country can break down immediately after the departure of a strong leader. From that perspective, the peaceful manner in which the election was conducted, it should be termed as historic. While six candidates including incumbent President Adama Barrow contested for the country’s top post, in reality there were 25 nominations at the beginning[1]. Nearly 860,000 Gambians equivalent of 90 percent exercised their democratic rights[2]. The disruption free election with high turnout despite significant clout of Jammeh[3] also shows the resolve of Gambians in choosing their future leader and speaks loud for the law and order of the country.

The result was announced on 5thDecember, Adama Barrow, the incumbent President was declared winner with an overwhelming majority. He has secured nearly 53% of vote, while his nearest rival Oussainou Darboe got only 28%[4]. While his victory has been contested by four out of the five opposition parties, there has been no report of any major pre- or post-poll violence. Even though opposition leaders challenged the result, it appears to be a tactic to keep the supporters energised. In any case, verbal challenge needs to be complemented with an appeal to the court with evidences within ten days and thereafter waiting for the court’s ruling to effectuate any change in the result. So far, no evidence of fraud has been presented to the court.

Most importantly, none of the opposition parties have raised any concern about the voting process. All they have complained was about an unprecedented delay in the announcement of the results. Obviously, the delay in result doesn’t stand as evidence of fraud. Given there is no evidence that the election was rigged in favour of the incumbent, chances of reversal of result seems unlikely. Meanwhile, thousands of supporters stormed into the roads to celebrate Barrow’s reelection. And the peaceful manner in which the incumbent came back to power, it is safe to claim that the Gambia’s democracy has managed to survive.

Unique Voting System of Gambia

The country has a unique voting system where instead of using paper ballots to cast votes, the Gambians use marbles. As the illiteracy rate was extremely high during their independencein 1965, the British introduced this system to allow a larger participation among the masses. 50 years after its independence, the level of illiteracy has improved. However, the voting system using marble continues to be in practice.

In this system, instead of ballot boxes, a metal cylinder with hole on its top is placed in the polling station. When a voter arrives at any polling station, his profile is verified by the polling agents. After the verification, they are directed towards different coloured drums, each according to the party colour with the photo of the candidates printed on it. Then, voters simply put their marble on one particular drum based on their preferred candidate. The counting process is even simpler where marbles are emptied into a square tray, with dotted holes and counting takes place on the spot. This on-the-spot counting confirms fairness and helps to build confidence of general public concerning the electoral process.

Similar to India, the electoral system in Gambia is based on first past the post where irrespective of the margin, the party getting the highest number of total votes cast, is declared winner. The system gets complicated and logistically challenging with the increasing number of candidates, as there must be one drum for each candidate. Yet, despite several changes in voting system, Gambia decided to keep their unique voting procedure. In addition to being simplest form of voting, the process has worked so far as fair and transparent, devoid of any form of rigging. As a matter of fact, despite the obsolete nature of this form of voting, the same system managed to end a 27 years dictatorship in 2016.

History of Election in Gambia

So far, Gambia has seen only three presidents and there has been only one occasion in 2016 when an incumbent lost an election. In 1965, Sir Dauda Jawara became Gambia’s first founding President and ran the country for 24 years. In 1994, the previous President Yahya Jammeh led a bloodless coup d’état against Jawara and went on to rule the country for 22 years. In 2016, for the first time in the Gambian history, the incumbent Jammeh lost to Adama Barrow in a democratic election.

When twenty-nine-year-old Yahya Jammeh, a lieutenant and leader of the Armed Forces Provisional Council (AFPC) seized power in 1994, he promised to be different. The prospect of moving beyond the Jawara regime made Gambians hopeful for a bright future. However, their hopes dissipated fast as repression became the rule of the day. He started his rule by suspending the constitution, arresting his superiors in the military as well as Jawara loyalists. Initially, he announced a four-year transition period to democratic civilian rule, which later got reduced to two years, from 1994 to 1996. During this time, he ruled the country with an iron fist as military dictator. Later he amended the constitution which allowed unlimited tenure for presidential post. From 1996 onwards, he won four consecutive elections, before losing to Barrow in 2016.

As civilian president, Yahya Jammeh continued to rule the country in a very strict and often cruel way. Hostile political environment, economic hardship, poor records of human rights, and the ever-present threat of conflict became some of the common features of his regime[5]. He introduced several draconian laws and anti-people policies such as 1994 Newspaper Act (reviewed again in 2004), the National Media Communication Act, the 2004 Criminal Code (Amendment) Bill in order to control people’s rights to information, expression, and interaction[6]. Any individual or journalist raising voice against his government was forced into exile in some undisclosed locations. According to some estimates, Gambia lost more than a third of its qualified manpower who took refuge outside Gambia[7]

In April 2000, President Yahya Jammeh's security forces opened fire on crowds of peaceful protesters, killing 14 students, a journalist and Red Cross volunteer. His period of rule was also marked by the killing of over fifty West African migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Senegal murdered by the NIA, the murder of journalist Deyda Hydara, the disappearance of another journalist Ebrima Manneh. In addition, there are multiple allegations related to unlawful detention, arrests, torture while under arrest, unfair trials, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution, rape and embezzlement against him[8].

Thus, in 2016, his loss to Barrow was considered as a win of democracy and was celebrated across the continent. When Jammeh refused to step down, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its member countries decided to step in to remove him. In 2017, Jammeh signed an agreement brokered by the UN, West African regional entity ECOWAS and the African Union which allowed him to go into exile in return of his giving up the Presidency. However, the agreement has the provision for him to return to Gambia whenever he wants.

Gambia under Barrow

Before running for Presidential position, Barrow was a successful real estate businessman who once worked as a security guard in London.  In 2016, Barrow decided to run as an independent candidate. By uniting the seven opposition political groups to form an alliance, he managed to garner enough support to eventually beat the dictator Yahya Jammeh. When Barrow defeated Jammeh, this took everyone by surprise as this was the first time an incumbent lost an election. But at the same time, no Gambian leader before Barrow, in the history of Gambia, has managed to bring so many opposition leaders together.

As a matter of fact, the presidential candidacy of President Barrow in 2016 was also sort of a chance. In April 2016,Ousainou Darboe, the founding member of United Democratic Party (UDP), was the unanimous choice to lead the opposition coalition. However, when he got detained for participating in street protests, the name of Barrow emerged as the leader of UDP-led coalition. Even though he lost the only parliamentary election he participated nine years ago, surprisingly he managed to defeat the incumbent Jammeh.

For the election of 2016, initially he was appointed for a term of three years as a transitional leader. However, he backtracked on his promise and stuck to his position for full five years. And in January 2021, he formed a new party, National People's Party (NPP) to enable him to fight another election and renew his mandate. This time again Barrow has been declared winner under NPP banner. However, the huge margin of his win has amazed everyone including his own supporters. So big the margin of his win is that even combining all the votes of his all five challengers will not be enough to beat him.

In 2016, Barrow became the President, by leading the opposition coalition formed against former President Yahya Jammeh. Initially, he was seen as a transitional leader, the “accidental presidential” the one who is expected to keep the seat warm for more popular leader Darboe[9]. He was considered a novice, who would be outdone by all the other stronger party leaders of the coalition. Instead, within a year into his first term, he managed to cast aside most of the stronger leaders of the coalition of opposition political parties that brought him to power. He exited UDP and decided to part ways with the Vice President Darboe. So good was his political manoeuvring, his regime witnessed the appointment and departure of three vice presidents.

Under Barrow, Gambia witnessed decent economic growth, and emerged as a stable country in the rather volatile and violence-prone West Africa region. Despite the poverty and lack of adequate medical infrastructure, his strong handling of Covid-19 pandemic remains praiseworthy. During his first five years of ruling, he repealed the death penalty, released all the political prisoners of Jammeh era and encouraged multi-party democracy. As a matter of fact, the Gambian judiciary has become more transparent to the citizen devoid of any executive interference, unlike Jammeh era. This is a testimony to a strong anchoring of democracy under his regime. Under his government, Gambia also filed a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya minority[10].

Earlier this year, he attempted to bring some constitutional reform. The principal aim of the reform was to restrict the term limits of the president and bringing in more secularism in the political governance of the Muslim majority country. However, this was possibly viewed as centralisation of power and was rejected by the Gambian parliament. However, for the people of the tiny West African nation, his first term symbolised the beginning of a new era of growth and positive development. In a country which was riven by ethnic and religious disharmonies, he managed to form a rainbow coalition bringing several major ethnic and religious groups under one roof.

In 2016, Barrow won the election with promises for justice against the atrocities of Jammeh era. To that end, in December 2017 Barrow established the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate the crimes and alleged abuses committed by the ex-President[11]. The principal object of forming TRRC was to create a record of all the human rights violations that were caused during the Jammeh era. Doing justice also includes the demands for meeting the needs of the victims, as well as bringing in institutional and legal reforms to prevent similar mishaps in the future. Consequently, the incumbent president has already reserved 150 million Gambian dalasi ($2.8m) in the 2022 budget[12] for related expenditure. For the past three years, the commission has conducted a public enquiry, hearing the agonising details of the atrocities from nearly 400 witnesses that included both victims and officials from the past government[13]. As per the commission, about 250 people, including 59 West African migrants, lost their lives in the blatant state-sanctioned abuse[14]. In late November, nine days before the election, the commission handed over its 14,000-page document, containing approximately 427 findings and 218 recommendations to Barrow and advised him to pursue criminal charges against Jammeh[15]. The report has not been released to the public; neither any action has been taken so far. However, the new government will have six months to work on the recommendations. During post-result conference, Barrow has clearly announced that justice was his first priority for the next term[16].

Earlier, the news of the pact between his NPP and Jammeh’s party the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), sparked speculations about the possibility of Jammeh’s return to Gambia from exile in Equatorial Guinea and denied justice. The people hypothesised that may be Barrow is getting power hungry and allowing the former ruling party to get a role in the next government in order to retain his presidency. However, within hours of the coalition announcement, when Jammeh protested against the coalition, and his former party broke down into two fractions, the speculation over an amnesty deal for Jammeh fell apart.

Presidential Election 2021

This year, the race to president’s chair was literally a two-horse race where Barrow, the incumbent president locked horn with his former vice-president Darboe. Incidentally, this was the fifth time the 73 years old leader stood in Presidential election. Earlier, he has been a consistent critic of Jammeh and contested the presidency against Jammeh in all four consecutive terms in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011. Apart from Barrow and Darboe, the other four candidates were Halifa Sallah of People's Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), Mama Kandeh, leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC), Abdoulie Ebrima Jammeh of National Unity Party (NUP) and independent candidate Essa Mbye Faal.

This time, Barrow ran on a continuity ticket highlighting the infrastructure projects completed under his watch, as well as increased civil liberties. Upon his reelection, the President promised to bring in a new constitution that would restrict the number of mandates any leader can serve in Gambia. The proposal for the same constitution was brought before the parliament in September. Among others, the amended constitution sought to impose a term limit for the president’s position. The amended constitution also intended to introduce several new checks and balances on power. However, the same proposal got rejected in the parliament.

India Gambia Relations

The Gambia, a small country of about 480km (300 miles) long with a coastline of about 60km (37 miles) on the Atlantic Ocean, is surrounded by Senegal from other three sides. With one-billion-dollar economy and more than half of its two million inhabitants living on less than $1.90 a day, the coastal nation is one of the poorest countries in the world. The principal revenue generator of Muslim-majority nation is tourism, accounting for nearly a third of its GDP. As per the official estimates, the country stands to lose 292 dollar of tourism revenue due to the covid-19 related travel restrictions[17].

In recent times India has been able to develop a very cordial relationship with Gambia. This was evident when the President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind visited Gambia from 31st July-1st August 2019. This was the first ever visit by any President of India and the most high-level visit so far. During his visit, he received warm welcome from the Gambian President Barrow. The visit led to an Indian commitment of an assistance of USD 500,000 in support of skill development and cottage industry projects for Gambia[18]. In November 2021, as a follow-up visit to Indian President, Indian Minister of State (MoS) V Muraleedharan made a two-day visit to Gambia and met the Gambian President as well as other dignitaries. During the visit, MoS also signed a General Framework Agreement for Cooperation between India and Gambia, and another Agreement on Exemption from Visa Requirement for Holders of Diplomatic and Official Passports[19]. Earlier, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Shri Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi visited Gambia in September 2015. As a Special Envoy of Prime Minister (SEPM), he personally invited the Gambian President to participate in India Africa Forum Summit III (IAFS-III)[20].

The Government of India has extended several Lines of Credit to the Government of Gambia covering diverse areas. India has built the National Assembly Building of Gambia under our concessional financing arrangement. In Banjul, one Vocational Training Center (VTC) and one Incubation Center (IC) was developed and donated to Gambian government. India has 75 training slots under Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation scheme. India[21] is also providing training to Gambians in the fields of judiciary, police, administration and technical expertise, based on the demands and subsequent request by Gambian government. India has also organised special training programmes for the Gambian Permanent Secretaries and senior civil servants as well as diplomats. President Barrow is an admirer of Indian culture and history. He has written a piece 'What Mahatma Gandhi means to me' for the 'Gandhi Anthology' which is a compilation of write-ups on Gandhiji to commemorate his 150th birth anniversary[22]. Although small, the Indian community consisting of 1600 individuals is extremely vibrant community, mostly traders and businessmen[23]

Road Ahead

Gambia has been the champion of human rights’ promotion across the continent. In 1980, Gambia hosted the experts assigned to draft an African human rights charter. The same charter gave birth to the 1981 Banjul Charter. The charter paved the way for setting up an African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. While the Commission was officially inaugurated in 1987, under the umbrella of Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the commission didn’t have a permanent secretariat. In 1989, under its first President Dawda Jawara, Gambia decided to host the Commission and since then it is based in Banjul, Gambia’s capital[24].  Gambia lost the steam in 1994 when the dictator Jammeh took over reins of power through a coup.

The reelection of Gambian President raises hope for justice. While the path to justice and reconciliation can be long, the prospects of ex-president being punished for his atrocities look good. This would also help Gambia to reclaim its role in leading and shaping the continent’s human rights record. Challenges remain. Considering the prevalence of rape as a weapon of torture and intimidation under the Jammeh government, concerns over the privacy and dignity of the victims are looming large. The perception related to victim’s identity, in a relatively conservative Muslim society, makes the road to justice even more delicate. TRRC in its recommendations, among others, has already requested the government to introduce witness protection. The Gambian government under the leadership of Barrow needs to act quickly, yet delicately to deliver the much-anticipated justice and reparations to the victims. Six months is a long time and the anticipated prompt actions of the returning President will be closely watched.

Endnotes :

[1]All Africa, October 26, 2021. Gambia: IEC Issues 25 Nomination Forms for December Polls.
[2]US News, December 5, 2021. Gambia President Barrow Wins Re-Election in Post-Jammeh Vote.
[3]BBC, December 4, 2021. Gambia elections: Ex-President Yahya Jammeh's shadow looms over poll.
[4]BBC, December 6, 2021. Gambia elections: Adama Barrow declared presidential election winner.
[5]Premium Times, September 13, 2021. Yahya Jammeh and the resurgence of Africa’s morbid past, By Toyin Falola.
[7]Pambazuka, March 17, 2015. The Gambia: 50 years of independence, 20 years of terror.
[8]Amnesty International, 2017-2018. Gambia 2017/2018
[9]African Arguments, November 16, 2021. Gambia: The seat-warmer, the forever runner-up, and the return of Jammeh.
[10]Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2020. Rohingya ruling: How a tiny African country brought Myanmar to court.
[11]Al Jazeera, December 3, 2021. Gambians set for high-stakes polls, first since end of Jammeh era
[12]Al Jazeera, December 9, 2021. Adama Barrow’s re-election and The Gambia’s long walk to justice.
[13]Reuters, November 25, 2021.Gambia's truth commission recommends prosecutions for Jammeh-era crimes.
[14]The point, November 29, 2021. GOOD MORNING  PRESIDENT: Election count down.
[15]All Africa, November 26, 2021. Gambia: TRRC Recommends Prosecution of Worst Right Violators.
[16]Bloomberg Quint, December 8, 2021.Gambia’s Reelected Leader Vows to Push for Term Limits, Justice.
[17]Bloomberg, January 30, 2021. Gambian Leader Launches Party He’s Expected to Lead in Election.
[18]Business Standard, July 31, 2019. India extends $500,000 assistance to Gambia during President Kovind's visit.
[19]Republic World, November 5, 2021. MoS Muraleedharan Discusses Bilateral Cooperation With Gambian Prez Adama Barrow.
[20]Bilteral Brief, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2019
[22]ANI News, July 31, 2021. India extends $500,000 assistance to Gambia during President Kovind's visit
[23]Ministry of External Affairs, November 5, 2021. Visit of Shri V. Muraleedharan, Minister of State for External Affairs to the Republic of The Gambia (1-3 November 2021)
[24]African Commission on Human and People’s Rights

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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