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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

The challenge of consolidating the gains of democracy in The Gambia

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By Abdoukabirr Daffeh

Although contemporary authoritarian regimes in Africa have taken a number of forms, they fall within the general models of one-party systems, personal dictatorships, and military regimes. The postcolonial trend toward one-party systems in Africa was justified on a number of grounds, including the alleged tradition of a single unchallenged chief, the idea of a democratic majority expressed through a single party, and the need for unity in the face of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural differences. Competitive politics was rejected as an imported luxury neither needed nor affordable in developing countries.

In the Gambia, for example, the idea of an opposition was rejected on quasi-theological grounds: The Imam of President Jammeh once remarked in a sermon “There is no opposition in Heaven”. “God himself does not want opposition—that is why he chased Satan away”. Why should President Jammeh have opposition? Dr. Kewir observed that in many African countries the institutions of civil society and democratic government are weaker today than they were in the immediate post-independence period, making the transition to democracy a daunting challenge. He argued that, in order for democracy to succeed, power must shift from authoritarian and military rulers to leaders who would be representative of and sensitive to the diverse ethnic groups in African societies. These new leaders, he said, must direct a move to the protection of civil rights, establishment of agreed-upon modes of governance, and greater political accountability in order to sustain the move to democracy.

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Until July 22 1994 the Gambia enjoys a stable multiparty democracy. The Gambia was one of the few African countries that doesn’t experienced military takeover. This democratic success of the Gambia was snatched off in the wake of a military coup by Yahya Jammeh .Jammeh who alleged the three decade PPP government of President Jawara of corruption, nepotism and favoritism on ethnic line promised to ensure accountability, transparency and probity and build in strong institutions for a transition to popular democracy.

The Gambia from 2014-2016 had recorded about nine thousand migrants many of whom were political migrants (Sait 2017). The leader of the opposition PPP party, Omar Jallow had gone to prison almost 22 times in the 22 year rule of Jammeh. During this period, Gambians lived in a state of unpredictability and uncertainty .The Judiciary was not independent many of the judges in the Gambia were Nigerians who were used by Jammeh against his opponents.

However, as argued by Abdoulaye Saine in his Third wave paradox of democratization in the Gambia: From AFPRC-APRC the democratic window was shunted in the Gambia from 1994. With the killing of Deyda Hydara, the editor of The Point newspaper in 2004, and the missing of Chief Ebrima Manneh of the Daily Observer in 2006, the crackdown on journalist became frequent than anywhere in the world. The Jammeh government continued to shut down local newspapers which were critical of his regime. Attacks on human rights activists and journalists got intensified. Kanyiba Kanyi of the United Democratic Party was also allegedly killed in 2006.

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During this period civil society activities were carefully monitored through the office of the President. The APRC led government of Jammeh shut down international window and the Gambia was isolated in the international community of nations. In 2013, The Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations, the ICC and severed ties with Taiwan; a major donor to Gambia. Jammeh also severed diplomatic relation with many western countries including the US and the UK. He often called western countries as “satanic” elements.

Even though section one of the Constitution of the Gambia recognizes the Gambia as a secular state, President Jammeh unilaterally declared the Gambia an Islamic state in 2016.
In 2014, the EU withheld about 32 million Euro support to Gambia government and the United State government placed a sanction on Gambian Executives to travel to US. The Human Right watch and Amnesty International declared the Gambia in 2015 as one of worst countries for journalist and human right defenders to work in. In 2016 after the crackdown on the UDP executives, Jammeh threatens to kill the majority Mandinka tribe if they were to protest. He vowed that many women will be husbandless after the 2016 election.

The problem here is that while the Gambians home and abroad united to usher in a regime change in the Gambia through the election of President Barrow , backed by eight coalition parties, the climate for democratic transition in the Gambia is far from being realized. The Barrow led coalition government who campaigned on a three year mandate to unseat president Jammeh, unite the country and return the country after three years to the Gambians to vote in a new leader has begun to change course and intent to stay in power a little longer than agreed. President Barrow himself in his interview with Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS) had indicated his stay in power after three years depends on the Gambian people.

Many Gambian began to mistrust the coalition government. Many argued that the very reason they demanded for a change of the Jammeh government is been repeated by the Barrow government. Partiality and ethnic activism is rife today than ever before in the Gambia. Employment to top offices in the Gambia today many accused, are based on patronage, loyalty to the ruling government. President Barrow himself in his visit to Turkey in February 2018, chide Gambians that “when has night fallen that we could not recognized each other». According to Barrow the intellectual community and the civil societies who are critical of his government today were never seen during the 22 year rule of Jammeh, implying that the critics should shut up. Many of the Gambians home and abroad regarded this remark of Barrow an affront to democracy and freedom of speech.

The detention of Dr. Ismaila Ceesay for making an expert opinion on the security situation of the Gambia and the denial of permit to a youth group, OccupyWestfield to protest against the electricity crisis in the Gambia, as well as the killing of Haruna Jatta and injuring many other dozen people in the home village of former president Jammeh who were protesting for the removal of ECOMIG forces in Kanilai many believe is a negation of freedom of speech and democracy. The fighting between members of the opposition APRC party and the UDP in both Busumbala Village and the home village of President Barrow, Mankamang Kunda, leaving dozens of party militants from the APRC and the UDP injured in January 2018, is indicative of the challenge for democratic transition the country faced.

In January 2018, members of parliament from the PDOIS declared that the Gambia is still not a transparent country. President Barrow donated 57 pickup cars to the parliamentarians in the Gambia. Most of the parliamentarians particularly from the PDOIS demanded the president to reveal the sources of those cars and the president could only remark that the cars were from an anonymous source. Halifa Sallah of PDOIS in his visit to universities in Europe, argued that the Gambia has achieved a regime change but not yet system change. He noted that the next change in the Gambia should be a system change. The coalition government had declined to ensure the actualization of one of the tenants of democratic transition, term limit.

Even though the coalition government campaigned on the ticket of institutional reform and term limit, yet the Barrow led government has remain muted on that, one year today in power. The sacking of one of the founding members of the coalition government, Mai Ahmad Fatty who was the Minister of Interior until December 2017 without any explanation from Barrow government, is synonymous to the Jammeh government system which in the early days of the coalition government vows to change. The problem here is that the Gambia faces more challenge than prospect in transitioning to democratic rule.

This research shall explore the attempts by government, Civil Societies, academics and the youths of the Gambia in ensuring the transition to democracy in the Gambia. In this research, I shall focus on the religious groups, women, youths, CSOs and the scholarly community of the Gambia as well as the Gambian Diaspora in an attempt to explore how their actions and inaction will or is helping strengthen the democratic project of the Gambia. I shall also focus on ethnicity and ethnic politics with a view to understanding the challenge of ethnic politics in the Gambia and how it affects the democratic project of the Gambia. I shall explore the relationship between political parties in the Gambia, the role of the interparty committee and their mandate for restoring democracy in the Gambia. I shall also focus on the findings of the Janneh Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation commission and how they will help strengthen the Gambia’s transition to democracy.

The author is a researcher on Democratization from the Pan-African University, Yaoundé

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