The report of the European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission on the conduct of the last presidential elections has vindicated those of us who had accused President Adama Barrow and his National People’s Party (NPP) of using state resources and other incentives to induce the voters and failing to strictly abide by the election laws during the campaign.
The report indicates that in addition to the widespread use of government vehicles and other state resources during the campaign, President Barrow and the NPP were also using all kinds of methods to entice the voters. We were all witnesses to the widespread reference to government projects during the campaign as well as making all sorts of promises to the people, giving the impression that those development projects were as a result of his magnanimity rather than being funded from state coffers.
For instance, we have all heard President Barrow using the period of the campaign to promise to create monthly salaries for the alkalolou, and it was quite obvious that the intention was to entice them and their wards to vote for him. We also saw the distribution of money, milling machines and many other incentives to the voters by some of the parties, but mostly by the NPP, in contravention of the election laws. It was certainly quite unfair for President Barrow to use projects funded by taxpayers’ money and other state resources to campaign for his re-election, and yet, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the referees who should ensure that there was a level playing field for all the contestants, did virtually nothing about it.
Therefore, most people seem to lay the blame for all those anomalies squarely on the doorstep of the IEC, who despite all those blatant violations of the electoral laws, were either unwilling or unable to do anything about it, making it appear as if everything was normal. This is certainly yet another indictment of the electoral commission, showing clearly that it needs complete overhaul and replacement by a much better organised and a more efficient commission that meets the basic tenets of a modern electoral body. It appears that the IEC is still suffering from the hangover of the Jammeh era and we need an infusion of new blood and strategy to make it responsive to the new reality.
Even the very fact that The Gambia is still the only country in the whole wide world of more than 200 countries still using the outdated marble voting system in our elections seems to show our unwillingness to embrace modernity. Being one of the smallest and poorest nations, it certainly does not make any sense to assume that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Even though we may be small and poor, but we are certainly not the least educated nation, and therefore, if voters in the other countries can use paper ballots in their elections, why can’t we do the same? Those Gambians still defending the continued use of the marbles based on the fact that a majority of our population cannot read and write, are simply conservative and afraid of change.
In addition, it is hard to understand why our constituencies are still demographically so disproportionate, with some of them more than 20 times larger than the others, and yet, they are all supposed to have equal representation in the legislature. For instance, a constituency like Janjangbureh has less than 2000 registered voters and all the five constituencies in Foni added together have slightly over 40,000 registered voters, while Serekunda West Constituency alone, for instance, has almost 50, 000 registered voters, yet still, they all send one representative to the National Assembly. Despite all such untenable disparities, however, the IEC has made no visible efforts to correct the situation, in spite of the commission having all the time in the world to do something about it.
It is hard to understand how a modern electoral body like the IEC cannot even maintain an up-to-date website. For instance, even the segregated results of the last presidential elections are still not available on their website and a lot of other useful information including the various pieces of legislation dealing with elections cannot be found on it. It is therefore hard to see how the IEC, who are unable to maintain an indispensable service like a website, can be relied on to run an efficient and modern electoral process. For instance, in this digital age, one would have even expected that instead of the IEC demanding candidates to come with physical cash to pay for their deposits and other charges, everything should have been done electronically and through the banking system.
While there is no evidence that the IEC deliberately connived with President Barrow and the NPP to flout the electoral laws during the campaign for the presidential elections, its failure to address some of those shortcomings is yet another indication that the commission needs a complete overhaul in order to meet its basic obligations to Gambian voters. For instance, the commission needs to have an efficient legal department, which would advise it on legal matters rather than just doing things according to its own interpretations of the law. A good case in point for such a shortcoming was the disqualification of some presidential candidates during the last presidential elections, which the courts found to have not been done according to law.
Commenting on the apparent weakness of the IEC, the EU Mission’s report adds; “The manner in which the nomination process was conducted, which included avoidable missteps, including issues around the application of the law and poor communication, highlighted weaknesses in the IEC’s internal structure and capacity, as well as shortcomings in the regulatory timeframe for nominations vis-à-vis the commencement of the campaign.”
In addition, the decision of the IEC to carry out the replacement of lost and damaged voters’ cards, barely three months after the end of the general voter registration exercise raised some eyebrows, and it was seen by some people as being unusual. That was no doubt, why some conspiracy theorists suggested that it could have been a smokescreen to issue voters cards to non-Gambians and others not legally entitled to vote in this country.
The Barrow administration came to power in 2017 with electoral reforms as its watch-word, which was no doubt triggered by the brutal killing of Solo Sandeng in NIA custody and the torture of several UDP militants for simply demanding electoral reforms, and here we are, more than five years later, still using the self-serving system put in place by the Yahya Jammeh regime. No doubt, it was thanks to President Barrow’s supporters in the National Assembly who voted against the well-crafted draft constitution, which was meant to address some of those deficiencies.
Let us hope that the government and the IEC would take note of the EU Mission’s pertinent observations and recommendations, which include making essential changes in the electoral legal framework in order to bring it in line with international standards. It also recommended increasing the capacity and transparency of the IEC, including the establishment of specialised divisions like legal and gender units within the commission. Even the very fact that the commission recently published its list of electoral officials for the regions and there was not a single woman, was indicative of apparent gender insensitivity.
The EU Mission further recommended the strengthening of “the institutional independence of the IEC by establishing an inclusive mechanism for the selection and appointment of the IEC chairperson and commissioners and by ensuring the security of tenure of the commissioners.” It certainly does not inspire confidence in the electoral system if the President, who is one of the players, should also assume the powers to appoint the chairperson and commissioners of the IEC. It is just like the coach of one of the competing teams in a football match being given the power to appoint the referees of the match.
However, one interesting aspect of the EU Mission’s report was the praise it heaped on the Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) for its coverage of the elections and the indictment of some of the private media for their biases in favour of the incumbent. That is indeed quite surprising because everyone would have assumed that the GRTS would favour President Barrow and traditionally, the private media had always been sympathetic to the opposition. “The private media’s coverage of the campaign was far less balanced, in some cases giving an exclusive focus to the incumbent’s campaign, and often not distinguishing clearly between paid and editorial coverage,” the report said. In spite of those blatant biases on the part of some media institutions, the IEC never raised a finger, apparently either because of the commission’s lack of capacity or its dysfunctionality.
The author is a journalist and former minister of information and communication infrastructure.