By Haddy Njie
Raleigh North Carolina
Many Gambians have considered the victory of one of the two female candidates in the Banjul mayoral election as a breakthrough in the advancement of Gambian women in the country’s political history. Lizzie’s congratulatory message to Rohey soberly emphasized the significance of their presence as females in the scenes of Gambian politics. She notes: “Once again I congratulate the Mayor-elect and wish her all the best in her new endeavor. I’m happy that a woman won as part of my objectives when I became the first woman to enter this race was to pave the way for other women and girls in the horizon.”
Despite the victory of Gambian women from the election of our first female mayor, the processes leading to the choice of Rohey as mayor and not Lizzie during the campaign were rife with an unhealthy competition which the two women in the race were unfortunately enwrapped in by some of their supporters.
They too have, whether consciously or unconsciously, participated in that game on several occasions. Consequently, some of the male contestants who were far underqualified than any of the two female candidates gained votes that could have gone to the women. Lizzie, in my opinion, was the one who was most disadvantaged in that dramatizing of female-to-female socially-organized and expected rivalry.
Before we go further into this brief analysis of why the election discourse was about Lizzie versus Rohey more than it was about the two women and the men in the race, a little bit of contextual background information will be instructive.
Based on their public profiling, the two female candidates came in the race with diverse skill-set and capabilities, with the former more qualified for managing the Banjul City Council given her past work experience than the latter. Comparing Rohey with Lizzie was problematic on several grounds.
Who is Rohey Malik Lowe? She presented herself as a successful entrepreneur with a degree in International Relations from the University of Dalama Sweden, in 2017 and someone with a passion for community development. How about Lizzie Eunson? She holds university degrees in Public Administration and Legal Support Sciences. Her public profile reads as an experienced international Banker who has worked in areas such as commercial banking, staff training, administration, financial management and operational risk. Lizzie’s work experience covers much of Sub-Saharan Africa—she has worked in a professional capacity in Gambia, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania. She has also demonstrated competency, leadership, and integrity in the positions she has served. Also, Lizzie has lived in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Banjul mayoral election had nine official candidates, seven of which are males. How then did the election that had nine authorized candidates and only two females in that nine end up being politically feminized as a Lizzie versus Rohey contest and which rendered the significance of participation of both female candidates debased and localized around insecure femininities?
Much of the answer to that question resides in the social environment that imprints in the minds of both men and women that women are uniquely naturally gifted people in equating, contesting, destabilizing, and out-competing one another.
This socialization figures enormously in the female interaction and much of which are socially conditioned. Women are “naturally jealous of each other” is a common saying in The Gambia that normalizes and sanctions female-to-female aggression. Vaillancourt (2003) astutely rationalizes the force behind such gendered behavior among the global female population in noting that it falls within studies of sex selection as one of the two strategies of self-promotion and derogation of rivals used by females to attract mates thus:
Self-promotion involves epigamic displays of physical attractiveness such as wearing make-up or sexy clothing to draw the attention of a potential partner. The derogation of competitors consists in making a rival seem less attractive or less appealing to members of the opposite sex (Walters & Crawford 1994 ; Buss & Dedden, 1990 ) which is typically achieved by disparaging the competitor’s appearance or by spreading rumors that question the fidelity or level of promiscuity of a rival. Females attack other females principally on appearance and sexual fidelity because males value these qualities in their partners (Vaillancourt, 2013, p.1).
Vaillancourt (2013), draws further from studies in developmental psychology in likening derogation of rival with social aggression and relational aggression which manifest in acts such as: “… getting others to dislike a person, excluding peers from the group, giving someone the ‘silent treatment’, purposefully divulging secrets to others, and the use of derisive body and facial gestures to make another feel self-conscious.” (p.1)
Although the rivalry that was socially manufactured between Lizzie and Rohey expands the derogation of rival theory and its limits on competing for mates, I argue that the Lizzie versus the Rohey culturally imagined ‘enmity’ is a subtle form of the enactment of the derogation of competition, and in this case, for political votes and not for mates.
That form of rivalry is something that is well-known to many Gambians and internalized as a part of the social experience. Much of the Gambian environment steep women very deep in the education that sets them up for competition with other fellow women and this is, perhaps, more pronounced in polygamous arrangements where much of the family politics center around which of the co-wives will control the husband and by extension, the family’s wealth. Thus, it comes as no surprise to me that the rivalry between the two female mayoral candidates was bound to happen. In fact, it was expected, and nothing was going to stop it. Not even the goal of solidifying the solidarity of the sisterhood and the promotion of the visibility of women in Gambian politics–objectives that both women represent and have as specific interest in their campaign platforms.
The rivalry between the two women was uncalled for. Although both ladies have brought in an exceeding amount of excitement in the race in their own unique styles, Lizzie was favored by a clear majority among educated Gambian women and men. Lizzie’s camp was also constituted by men and women, young and old, who are sympathetic to the cause of scaling-up female active participation in Gambian politics and their endorsement was based, for the most part, on several factors including educational qualifications, work experience and ability to effectively communicate campaign platforms in English. In the perspective of her excited fans, Lizzie was the perfect candidate, desirable for raising the qualification bar with which Gambian women are entering the political scenes, mostly, via the back door, resulting in tokenism.
It must be noted that Rohey adopted a narrative that reverberated well with many women in the capital, who saw in her their vision to actualize into successful entrepreneurs that Rohey positioned herself to be. That positioning perhaps helped her to get the votes of working-class women who could not foresee any women’s economic development plan that deviates from that which is within their experiences.
However, equating Rohey with Lizzie except that it is the socially-expected thing to do was a waste of election campaign time and one that arguably, negatively affected the attention and influence to sway voter decisions in favor of Lizzie. Lizzie could have harvested from the male contestants’ votes had her focus centered on demonstrating that she wasn’t just more competent than Rohey but was the most competent of all the other contestants.
The Lizzie versus Rohey’s strategy certainly did raise the bar in favor of Lizzie, but that strategy measured Lizzie’s abilities below those of the other male candidates. The competition on who has a better command of the English Language among the contestants and restricted solely to Lizzie and Rohey and not extended across the board to qualify and disqualify the other male candidates was a perfect example of the female rivalry to undercut each other. The pressure to rise above the limits placed by Gambians on English-speaking ability, interestingly used by many Gambians as a proxy of intelligence, was placed more on Rohey than it was on the other male candidates some of whom she commands better English than. Comparing Lizzie with Rohey as far as their competencies to manage the affairs of the Gambia’s capital city was like comparing oranges with apples in broad daylight, making such efforts vapid, miscalculated and indeed dicey.
Rohey’s election victory by a narrow margin and based on simple majority was not just the reason that her candidacy was supported by the United Democratic Party-the ‘former’ party of the current president, Adama Barrow, and one that still has the country’s most excited voter population since the ousting of Yahya Jammeh, former president of The Gambia. One of the other reasons why Rohey was able to win the simple majority vote was that Lizzie could not claim some of the votes that were cast for the seven male candidates which would have been possible had much of the debate about Lizzie’s competency broadened beyond the unfair competition set up between her and Rohey.
Another tangential, yet a critical question alongside the Rohey versus the Lizzie rivalry is whether the Gambia was ready for Lizzie? My answer to this question is no! In a country where female political participation is still very much limited to the grassroots political mobilizing and canvassing for votes for male politicians, Lizzie emergence was surprising; it was startling in the sense that Gambian group of elite women has not yet developed the knack and audacity to run for political office. Further, her being set-up by either herself or the campaign team as the most educated of the other candidates was a disastrous strategy. In fact, to be a woman and be considered overeducated is not something that is openhandedly embraced in our country’s current state of development.
The antagonism to visible female intelligence mostly does not only come from males who see educated women as threats to their gendered advantages, but it extends to some fellow women who have been conditioned to think that women are not good enough in administrating any responsibility outside of their reproductive roles. Lizzy’s losing on that ground wasn’t her fault since she doesn’t have to under-evaluate her qualifications or subdue her integrity to earn the votes of the people fraudulently. This crisis of civic education isn’t the fault of the Gambian population either. It is the consequence of a lack of rigorous public education opportunities and with more civic awareness and a positive transformation of the country’s demographic characteristic- education wise- that grim political condition is bound to change in favor of Gambian politicians who have the knowledge and wherewithal to efficiently manage public offices.
Other factors why Lizzie Eunson did not win the mayoral election are that Gambians as part of their voting practices are still stuck in the habit of privileging ethnicity, associating a ruling party with power, voting along family affiliations, and are under the influence of the politics of handouts from unscrupulous candidates who capitalize on the poverty of the citizen to buy votes.
Despite the role played by other factors I have mentioned in Lizzie’s election defeat, female derogation opposition figured prominently in how her and Rohey’s campaigns were framed by their supporters and non-supporters who abetted and pushed for a race between the two that could have been avoided.
Winning for women and winning big in the future will require efforts that target factors that affect the country’s democratic process and notably those of voter behaviors, low regards for the female competency and more especially, the conscious effort of controlling for the derogation of rival among females. The solidifying of the sisterhood will benefit from all efforts that cement and not demolish it for the benefit of the patriarchy.
Overall and to conclude, the just finished mayoral elections ushered in an unmatched level of excitement than any period in Gambia’s local council election history. This enthusiasm can serve as fodder for future attempts to strengthen the Gambian’s civic education and nascent democracy!