Election postmortem: 'A serious abuse of incumbency'
The outcome of the presidential elections in The Gambia has come as a great surprise to many people, shattering the hopes of those who had hoped for some changes in the country's governance system. While most people no doubt expected President Yahya Jammeh to win the poll, the level of victory was definitely much higher than even his supporters had ever anticipated.
Although most analysts had predicted President Jammeh's victory, they were generally convinced that he would get a much reduced majority. Some even predicted that he was going to get less than 50 per cent of the total vote while his two opponents would share a majority of the vote. However, at the end of the day, all those predictions were proved wrong and he ended up with the biggest margin of victory in his 17 year rule, thus leaving political analysts groping for explanations.
There is no doubt that several factors are responsible for this landslide victory obtained by President Jammeh over his opponents. While there is as yet no concrete proof that the polls were rigged in his favour as some sections of the opposition are alleging, certainly, as the Commonwealth election observer mission said in their interim report, he benefitted from the use of state machinery during the campaign period, which they said “amounted to a serious abuse of incumbency”. The Commonwealth interim report went further to cite the participation of uniformed military personnel in APRC rallies as well as the use of military trucks to transport youths wearing APRC party colours and emblem.
The Commonwealth report also referred to reports of public institutions, such as the Ministry of Petroleum, donating campaign materials to the APRC which it said helped tilt the balance in favour of President Jammeh. “We note that unequal access to funding was evident throughout the campaign period and that there was not a level playing field for the campaign with the advantage of incumbency exploited by the APRC. Indeed, the APRC spent far greater sums of money than that of the two other political rivals put together and, in the absence of campaign spending provisions, the level of competitiveness expected was compromised. We note also that the IEC failed to enforce the Code of Conduct which provides sanctions for such abuses,” the report states.
We also saw how various individuals and institutions were rushing in to donate large sums of money and election materials to the APRC and President Jammeh, in complete violation of Section 104 (7) (a) of the Elections Decree which clearly 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 unincorporated body.” One of those that donated campaign materials to the APRC was none other than the Ministry of Petroleum, as well as several others including non-Gambians, in complete violation of both the law and the election code of conduct.
Despite all that naked violation of the basic tenets of the electoral law, the IEC did nothing about it, but instead its chairman Mustapha Carayol went on bragging that he was an expert in the conduct of elections. He was even on record confirming that President Jammeh was using state resources to conduct his campaign, but that it was normal in Africa for the incumbent to use state resources as well as mobilise civil servants to campaign for him. That alone was a clear indictment of his ability to run an independent electoral body let alone conduct free and fair elections.
Therefore, despite the peaceful nature of the campaign, President Jammeh had more than a fair share of incumbency advantage. During his campaign tour of the country, we saw him accompanied by all the security chiefs, almost half of the officers and men of the Gambia National Army and the police force, together with almost half of the fleet of government vehicles and those of parastatal organisations, as well as almost all senior civil servants including the secretary general and head of the civil service, permanent secretaries, regional governors and other public officials, all of them donned in APRC 'T' shirts and other party emblems, in complete violation of the Elections Decree and other laws concerning political neutrality.
Also, even though there were efforts by the GRTS to give equal media coverage to the various candidates during the 10 days allocated for the official campaign, but there was clear biasness in favour of President Jammeh. In addition to the shoddy coverage of opposition meetings, we also saw the extensive coverage the GRTS gave to President Jammeh's entourage during its return to the Greater Banjul Area while they completely ignored Ousainou Darboe's own procession when he returned from his provincial tour. In fact, there were reports that even the street lights went off during Darboe's return procession, which some people attributed to some conspiracy at the highest level.
In addition to giving more in-depth coverage to President Jammeh's campaign tour than his opponents, the GRTS reporters and journalists also continuously used every available opportunity in their commentaries and other programmes to highlight his numerous achievements while making disparaging remarks about the opposition. One of them, for instance, described the alliance backing Hamat Bah's candidature as “the so-called United Front” and the reporter embedded with the UDP said he was apprehensive when he was asked to cover the “other side”, apparently indicating that he considered APRC as the side he belonged to.
During one of Malick Jones' weekend programmes, for instance, we heard the analysis of the campaign tours of the three candidates by the GRTS reporters accompanying them. While the two reporters who accompanied President Jammeh spoke and sounded exactly like APRC militants, those who accompanied the opposition candidates were quite measured in their analysis. We can however understand their predicament, considering what became of their former colleague, Dodou Sanneh, who was unceremoniously sacked after he was accused of inflating the numbers that attended UDP rallies and making comments favourable to the opposition during the last presidential campaign.
There is no doubt that the damning statement issued by Ecowas two days before the elections indicating their lack of confidence in the electoral process, was based on such obvious flaws in the process. Indeed Ecowas had very valid points because any honest person knows quite well that the process was quite flawed at every stage and as such, it was impossible to hold free and fair elections under such a climate. It is quite obvious to anyone who cares for the truth that election is a process and the casting of the ballot is the very last stage of that process. Therefore, rigging and whatever damage done to the process is usually done well before the casting of the ballot, which appears to have been the case in this instance.
However, what surprised most people was the stand point of the opposition, or rather their complete silence over such naked violation of the electoral law and code of conduct throughout the campaign period and even before. It is therefore hard to see how anyone would take their complaints seriously now when they not only accepted the situation imposed on them without any complaint, but some of them were even congratulating the IEC for leveling the playing field. At least if they had lodged complaints to the IEC much earlier regarding such obvious violations of the law, then, with the Ecowas statement, they could have had solid ground to stand on to challenge the results, but under the circumstances, it is hard to see how they can now get anyone's support and sympathy on the issue.
The only option now left to the opposition is to go back to the drawing board and re-organise for the forthcoming legislative elections in January. The two camps; the UDP-led alliance and the United Front coalition should continue their dialogue of forging a united front for the legislative elections in order to maximise their efforts in capturing a greater number of the seats of the National Assembly to enable them have a bigger say in the running of the country.
While the presidency is important, it is just one branch of governance, the legislature is also another quite important branch. Therefore, if the opposition can mobilise and get control of the National Assembly, they can be in a position to regulate how this country is governed in the next five years. However, if they get so discouraged with the results of the presidential elections and fail to regroup and mobilise for the legislative elections, then we will end up with the current status quo where President Jammeh controls both arms of governance and continues to run this country like his personal fiefdom without anyone challenging him.
With the current mood of despondency gripping the country after the presidential elections, it is very likely that the turn out for the legislative elections in January would be very low. This is because most people are now quite convinced that the game is over and as such, there is no point in queuing up to vote in another election. Therefore, now is the time for the politicians to convince the electorate that the legislative elections are just as important as the presidential elections, and that anyone who controls the National Assembly has a big say in the running of the country.