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Why the Jammeh-Barrow alliance is giving Gambians goosebumps?

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Former president Yahya Jammeh’s political party – Alliance for Patriotic Re-orientation and Construction (APRC) – was expected to die a natural death following his election defeat on 1st December 2016 and his subsequent exile to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017. Paradoxically, Jammeh’s political party has, last week, entered into an alliance with President Barrow’s National People’s Party (NPP), ahead of the 4 December 2021 presidential election, thereby dividing public opinion on the matter. And this begs the question: Why are Gambians divided over this marriage of convenience between NPP and APRC?

Alliance formation

On 4 September, the interim leader of the former ruling APRC, Fabakary Tombong Jatta announced, during a press conference, that the APRC and President Barrow’s NPP decided to form an alliance, ahead of the December 4th presidential election. The alliance is being touted by both parties as a mechanism to help reconcile the country by promoting national unity and social cohesion, as well as focus on socio-economic development. APRC is now the fifth political party after NRP, PPP, NCP, GPDP to rally behind Gambia’s incumbent leader, President Barrow, ahead of the presidential poll. All these political parties are relatively small but nonetheless, have considerable experience in the political landscape, especially now that they have access to resources including state resources. While PPP and NCP are currently the oldest political parties, NRP has five seats in the National Assembly and has supported the NPP to win its first seat during the Niamina West by-election in November 2020. 

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Since 1996, the APRC and its leader Yahya Jammeh dominated every aspect of public life winning all elections until Jammeh was defeated by president Barrow backed by a coalition of 7 political parties in December 2016.  Jammeh’s two decades long rule was characterized by egregious human rights violations including extra-judicial killings and disappearances and a close public space. Political opponents, journalists, human rights advocates and ordinary citizens were all constantly living in fear and his rule undoubtedly contributed to the exodus of many Gambians. Yet, despite his poor human rights record, Jammeh also played a pivotal role in the socio-economic transformation of the Gambia as seen by his government’s investments in health care, education, communication and infrastructure. For instance, he established the first university and television in the Gambia, as well as initiated several road projects and bridges across the country.

Consultation between the APRC and NPP might have been ongoing since 2018, and some analysts have pointed to the meeting in 2018 in Basse between President Barrow and Fabakary Tombong Jatta, leader of the APRC as the first window. Basse is a town in rural Gambia. Although Jammeh, currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea, has been silent throughout these negotiations between NPP and APRC, it is unthinkable that he was not aware of what was going on. The APRC leadership in the Gambia has fully understood the fact that the only symbol keeping the party together is Jammeh himself. In other words, as far as the APRC is concerned, the common denominator seems to be Jammeh.

Other meetings followed and in July 2021 APRC announced that their vehicle and unspecify amount of money that were seized as part of investigations into Jammeh’s financial activities by the Barrow government were returned. However, the cooption and adoption of former leading APRC political stalwarts like Seedy Njie and the appointment of former ministers even though Barrow had said earlier that he would not appoint any former Jammeh Ministers, showed practical steps to the existing relationship. Today, two members of the former Jammeh cabinets are manning the critical foreign ministry and Economics and finance while many others have been reinstated in the civil service.

However, the move is not without opposition particularly within the APRC party. The “No Alliance Movement” emerged accusing the Tombong Jatta led executive of mortgaging the party to president Barrow for economic gains. While the party was on its consultative tour, to sound the opinion of the party members across the country, the no camp mostly directed by diaspora party members and their local collaborators also organized meeting in Lamin rallying support and stating their opposition to the move. The No Alliance Movement while accusing the APRC executive of selling the party to President Barrow, believe they are defending Jammeh’s interest and also say they will accept the move if they hear from Jammeh himself endorsing it. It must be pointed out that Jammeh, through a previously leaked WhatsApp audio, stated that APRC was going to the polls alone. But Jammeh could have also engaged in a game of political brinkmanship at the time. Notwithstanding, he is yet to say anything publicly on the recently formed alliance between his APRC and NPP. The APRC first shifted, then cancelled and later organized a press conference to announce its decision to back President Barrow. Some of the APRC’s militants are planning to organize what they consider “a reconciliation rally” to reunite the different factions within the party.

UDP is the common threat

Undoubtedly, the very reason why APRC-NPP entered into alliance is their concern that UDP can defeat it. Both parties see the UDP the main contender as their main threat. While the NPP can be treated as a breakaway faction of the UDP, APRC has accused the UDP of being behind their suffering in the early days of the Barrow regime. Barrow’s problem with his former party the UDP is about his desire to contest for the next election even though he promised to serve a term of three years. Barrow’s request to lead the party into the 2021 election was rejected and that has since paved the way for the rise of NPP. Though the UDP leader then serving under Barrow initially supported Barrow to serve for five years as per the constitution, the party following their fallout with Barrow called on him to respect the three years agreement.

APRC has been very vocal about the reason why they are going into alliance with NPP. For them the goal is simple and it is only to deny victory to UDP. It is also about their survival said Dodu Jah the deputy spokesperson.  “It’s a matter of survival, yes. We are not hiding it. According to the politician, the reason why they going into alliance with NPP has largely to do with the many threats sent by UDP. The UDP leader recently vowed to implement the full report of the TRRC. The party spokesperson Almami Taal has also been on record saying that the TRRC must not exonerate the APRC as an enabler of Jammeh in its recommendation. According to Taal, the TRRC “should have interrogated what was the responsibility of the political party that Jammeh has created to aid and abet the dictatorship.”

The UDP has also reacted to the alliance. While noting their strong support for freedom of associations including parties forming alliances, the UDP said that “the NPP-APRC Alliance is borne out of expediency at the expense of the Gambian people’s aspirations for justice and reconciliation. This Alliance demonstrates that President Barrow has no moral qualms, no understanding or appreciation of the raison d’etre of the democratic forces coming together to end the dictatorship of former President Jammeh. He lacks empathy for the many victims of Yahya Jammeh’s repressive rule and the sacrifices made to usher in a transition to democratic dispensation.”

Not a great look for the TRRC

Many Gambians are worried about what this alliance will mean for the Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) established by President Barrow to investigate past-human rights abuses under Jammeh, provide reparation to victims and promote national reconciliation and social cohesion. The truth telling process which was aired live on television as well as on social media platforms exposed the glaring abuses committed under the Jammeh leadership. While victims testified on their victimhood, perpetrators including the junglers (Jammeh’s hit squad) explained how they killed and tortured many Gambians and other West African nationals. Essa Faal the lead counsel of the TRRC who has since joined the political race as an independent presidential candidate, claimed that more than two hundred people were extra judicially killed and all the killings were linked to Jammeh. A 2021 Afrobarometer report highlights that since 2018, the support for prosecution of perpetrators of human rights crimes under Jammeh’s leadership has increased as well as called for the extradition of Jammeh.

APRC has always accused the TRRC of witch-hunt against Jammeh like the Janneh Commission before it. The Janneh Commission was established to investigate the financial activities of Public Bodies, Enterprises and Offices as regards their dealings with former President Yahya A.J.J, Jammeh, his close associates and connected matters. They have openly criticized the process and even organized protest demanding the return of Jammeh. They have also organized protest demanding president Barrow to ignore the TRRC report alleging that the Chairperson of the commission was “illegally” constituted as well as the “impartial” nature of the process. The party has also directed attacks against the victims’ center including the chairperson, Sheriff Kijera. The TRRC is expected to submit its report in September 2021 and the report is expected to be a key discussion point for the election. Both the UDP and CA have committed to implement the full recommendation of the TRRC.

Gambians are not sure whether this current alliance will include forgiven Jammeh and ignoring his victims since both parties are yet to make the MOU public. More so, what will happen to the recommendations of the TRRC as the current regime has habit of ignoring commission recommendations and where it acts, have been accused of doing so selectively.  Critics have, since the announcement, condemned the move and argued that it was not only a betrayal to Gambia’s democracy project, but a great threat to TRRC outcome. Sidi Sanneh a blogger reacting to the alliance said “it is a slap in the face to every freedom-loving Gambian and, therefore, unacceptable to many. We defeated Jammeh in 2016. We will defeat him again in December 2021 in the name of ALL of Jammeh’s victims.  

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