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Why UDP lost the 2021 presidential election

Why UDP lost the 2021 presidential election

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By Dr Ebrima Ceesay

Late Joseph Goebbels, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, said something along these lines: repeating misinformation does not make it true, but it can make it more likely to be believed. Indeed, it was Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, who said: “If you repeat a lie often enough, it will become accepted as truth.” Psychologists call this phenomenon the “illusion of truth effect”.

Relatedly, two people can also look at the same glass and see completely different things. In other words, some view the glass as half-full, while others see the glass as half-empty, and this manifestation is referred to as “perception” by psychologists. Needless to say, our perceptions profoundly impact how we approach matters or things in life. Therefore, the lesson to learn is that the power of perception cannot be underestimated, and one ignores it at his or her own peril, as the UDP leader, Ousainu Darboe, has just found out the hard way, in this year’s presidential Election. But more on that later. In effect, perception, not necessarily factual; yet, it can, nonetheless, feel very real and can actually mould, shape, and influence how human beings approach situations and make decisions. In fact, perception can be said to be the lens through which we view people, events, form judgements and make decisions.

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Regrettably, in my view, Ousainu Darboe’s political frailty, by and large, had, all along, been caused by long-standing (unaddressed) perception problems, a case of perception actually altering reality, in that Ousainu Darboe, from the outset, was depicted by many Gambians particularly minorities in The Gambia, as an exclusionist, who was divisive and in the habit of promoting toxic identity politics. Consequently, going forward, this exclusionist tag became a liability for him, politically. His inability to effectively confront these perception problems, head-on, to nip them in the bud, did cost him dearly in political terms, in the end. For over two decades, what psychologists call the illusory truth effect, as mentioned earlier, was well-exploited by Yahya Jammeh, in that Jammeh’s seeds of deceit, that whisper of a misinformation about Ousainu Darboe being tribalistic, blossomed over the years, and became accepted, in the end, as the gospel truth at least by most minorities in the Gambia.

Unfortunately, this age-old propagandist method, first employed by Yahya Jammeh (but actually borrowed from Joseph Goebbels) against his (Jammeh’s) arch political enemy, as mentioned above, appeared to have worked very well, over the years, against Ousainu Darboe and even today that very misinformation about Ousainu Darboe being tribalistic is still being repeated. Therefore, UDP’s problem has been that its leaders have massively underestimated how much “others”, particularly minorities in The Gambia, have feared an incoming UDP government, while, on the other hand, they also overestimated their ability to reach beyond their loyal support base, strong but not enough to deliver victory, as I had forewarned on this medium, ahead of the presidential election. Yet, even to the casual observer of Gambian politics, it was clear that there was an entrenched fear in many quarters within the country, of an incoming UDP government.

Ironically, in post-Jammeh Gambia, the UDP’s popularity, on one hand, peaked to unprecedented levels, but equally, the party was widely loathed, on the other hand, as the presidential election results have just confirmed. That is a paradox, isn’t it? In fact, the paradox of the UDP brand needs to be studied by our scholars at the appropriate time. Where did the problem lie? Did the party itself have an image problem, or was it actually an individual problem to do with the person or image of its leader Ousainu Darboe? Did Ousainu Darboe, in the end, become a liability for the yellow party?

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Yet, regardless, history teaches us that the more misinformation is repeated, the more it will be believed to be true. In other words, repetition can make a statement seem truer, regardless of whether it is factual or not. Understanding this effect could have helped UDP avoid falling for this (unaddressed) age-old propaganda against its leader which, in my view, dealt a fatal blow to Ousainu Darboe’s presidential ambitions, as it denied him the Gambian presidency, in the end. The UDP leader’s ineffective fight back mechanism has meant that the so-called exclusionist label, sadly, has stuck not because it fitted Ousainu Darboe but because he let others, particularly his political opponents, define him narrowly over the years, if I may add.

Since 1996, Ousainu Darboe has found himself stuck in a story that many Gambians have cast him in, and with the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that disrupting these negative narratives, regrettably, has been a total failure, on the part of the UDP leadership. In fact, the illusory truth effect on social media in particular, and how it has affected Ousainu Darboe over the years, also needs to be carefully studied in due course by our emerging scholars.

In sum, the point that I am making is that Ousainu Darboe has, all along, been labelled an exclusionist – a divisive figure – and regrettably, his Achilles heel has been that he had been unable to effectively remove these labels. And in my view, Ousainu Darboe also appeared to have underestimated how much an incoming UDP government was feared by “others”, particularly minorities in The Gambia, not realising that the perception problems he faced since the formation of the UDP in 1996, have actually become a burden or liability for him. In short, various political forces, particularly Yahya Jammeh, have succeeded in shaping what many Gambian voters see, feel, and think about Ousainu Darboe in particular, and UDP more generally. Of course, the end-result being that most minorities in The Gambia – rightly or wrongly – viewed, or at least perceived, the UDP as a party whose modus operandi was exclusion and not inclusion. There was at least a perception among minorities in The Gambia that the party lacked diversity.

In this sense, the UDP’s rebranding effort (at the eleventh hour among the minorities in The Gambia) was too little, too late to save the party’s woes in this key election demographic: minorities. Regrettably, the UDP has had a very poor brand among ethnic minorities, many of whom have accused the party of lacking genuine inclusivity as well as perceiving the “diversity” within the UDP as mere “tokenism”. Interestingly, the UDP made a request at the eleventh hour to have a meeting with the leadership of the Gambia Christian Council (GCC) but that request got a lukewarm response from GCC, as the council’s leaders apparently were not keen on it. In the end, a compromise was reached, and it was later agreed that UDP be first allowed to meet an ad-hoc committee of the Christian Council, after which a decision would be taken from there.

Yet, I would argue that Ousainu Darboe’s reputation as a so-called exclusionist and a divisive figure has been largely a social media construct, of course, fed, over the years, by Yahya Jammeh in particular, and in the end, this has cost him dearly, in political terms. The way “others”, particularly minorities in The Gambia, viewed him, and the way he presented himself did not also help his cause, particularly when he became Foreign Affairs Minister and wielded enormous political power at the time, thereby adding fuel to the fire, as it were. Rightly or wrongly, there was a widespread perception that he promoted exclusionary tactics, favouritism, and cronyism in his former posts of both Foreign Affairs Minister and Vice President. Furthermore, as a president-in-waiting, I think it is also a fair statement to say that Ousainu Darboe was prone to making unforced errors, through poor or tactless decision-making, which no doubt also cast a cloud over his political judgement.

Therefore, UDP losing this year’s presidential election has to be blamed, to a large extent, on a catalogue of errors on the part of the UDP leadership, chief of which included complacency – the party’s ill-advised go-it-alone stance (being too comfortable and confident of victory), and also making the fundamental mistake of allowing others (mainly opponents, especially Yahya Jammeh) to continue to define who the UDP leader was, thereby controlling the narrative endlessly. Interestingly, the UDP did not also like the use of the words, “coalition”, “alliance”. The party’s leaders preferred the “endorsement” of their presidential candidate, as opposed to the formation of a “coalition” or an “alliance”.

In fact, ahead of the presidential election, I personally engaged one or two members of the party’s leadership trying to impress them on the urgency of forming a grand opposition coalition, but they made it loud and clear to me at the time, that they were only looking for “endorsement” from other political parties and not necessarily the formation of a coalition or an alliance. Of course, the other mistake UDP also committed, in my view, was to have seen this year’s presidential election as mere ethnic censuses, in which Gambian voters would vote predominantly for co-ethnic political parties and presidential candidates. For example, I heard a prominent UDP militant repeatedly peddle – on YouTube – very unconvincing arithmetical postulations around the number of registered voters from the respective ethnic groups in The Gambia and how this ethnic arithmetic would favour UDP.

You see, before Adama Barrow parted ways with the UDP, I argued on this medium in 2018 to be precise, that the December 2021 presidential lection was UDP’s to lose, because an undivided or unified UDP, in simple terms, would be formidable and unbeatable, having got the real or raw numbers, in relation to the demographic make-up of the Gambian population. Simply put, the UDP already carried the support of the largest demographics in the country after National Assembly and local government elections and that was likely to determine the results of the December 2021 presidential election. I said at the time that the ethno-linguistic distribution or composition of the population of The Gambia will play a big role in who would make it to the Gambian presidency. In sum, the winner of the 2021 Presidential election will have largely been determined by these key demographics: women, youths, rural vote, the two must-win jurisdictions of West Coast Region and Kanifing Municipality and the Mandinka majority. Of course, there could have been some overlaps between these demographic groups. For example, a young rural voter could also straddle both the youth vote and the Mandinka majority cohort.

But of course, on my part, I included a clear caveat that UDP will only have or win the Gambian presidency if Ousainu Darboe did not miscalculate, in which case the UDP could lose it. I had warned at the time that various scenarios can play out to frustrate or hamper Darboe’s chances of winning the presidency. Having assessed each one of these possible scenarios, I concluded at the time (and this was in 2018 before Barrow and Darboe came to their parting of ways) that the nightmare scenarios for the UDP was one where you would have a disunited party with both Adama Barrow and Ousainu Darboe running against each other as presidential candidates in the December 2021 presidential election, because potentially, the two men would take natural votes from each other. A breakaway faction of the UDP, led by incumbent President Barrow, was always going to prove to be Ousainu Darboe’s political nemesis.

By Dr Ebrima Ceesay

But of course, on my part, I included a clear caveat that UDP will only have or win the Gambian presidency if Ousainu Darboe did not miscalculate, in which case the UDP could lose it. I had warned at the time that various scenarios can play out to frustrate or hamper Darboe’s chances of winning the presidency. Having assessed each one of these possible scenarios, I concluded at the time (and this was in 2018 before Barrow and Darboe came to their parting of ways) that the nightmare scenarios for the UDP was one where you would have a disunited party with both Adama Barrow and Ousainu Darboe running against each other as presidential candidates in the December 2021 presidential election, because potentially, the two men would take natural votes from each other. A breakaway faction of the UDP, led by incumbent President Barrow, was always going to prove to be Ousainu Darboe’s political nemesis.

Therefore, the writing was always on the wall for the UDP if Adama Barrow decided to set up his own political party, in a worst-case scenario. From an ethno-linguistic point of view, an ethnic arithmetic strategy, relied upon, to a large extent, by the UDP in this presidential election, could have possibly worked well against presidential candidates Essa Faal, Halifa Sallah and Mamma Kandeh but not incumbent leader Adama Barrow who has always had the potential (or should I even say the ability) to draw crossover votes and multi-ethnic support, countrywide. Consequently, with the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that being too reliant on the ethnic arithmetic at the expense of trying to build a much more multi-ethnic support base, has also turned out to be a political miscalculation on the part of the UDP, especially against the backdrop that incumbent President Barrow already had a strong multi-ethnic support base.

Meanwhile, the lesson is clear. If false statements are made time and again, in a confident manner, without a counter argument being put forward, then the hearers of these deceptive messages will tend to believe them. Again, in my view, Ousainu Darboe underestimated the danger of letting others define him, and in the end, he has paid a heavy price for it, politically. Unfortunately, he left it too late before attempting to counter most of these allegations by which time the political damage to his image was already done beyond repair. To this end, last month’s TV documentary on the life and work of Ousainu Darboe, aired on the Kerr Fatou YouTube Channel, although a good programme, yet came rather too late. Too little too late, says the old adage.

To be fair, Ousainou Darboe had a difficult balancing act: on one hand, he was trying to keep some of his core political base happy, while also, at the same time, trying to appeal to folks outside of his base, on the other hand. Unfortunately, trying to kill two birds with one stone did not work well for him. With Ousainu Darboe, at least from my vantage point, he has always had a corresponding strength and weakness, in that his strengths were also his weaknesses. Given that the size of Ousainu Darboe’s political base, although strong and loyal, was nonetheless, thought to be inadequate; therefore, the high risk in Darboe’s base-first electoral strategy was always there to be seen, especially with minority voter turnout being expected to be high.

Indeed, there was always a fine line to be walked and regrettably, Ousainu Darboe had had missteps along the way. Personally, I get the sense that perhaps in fear of losing the support of some of his hard-core political base, Darboe was therefore careful not to offend them. And this meant that he was not forceful enough in disciplining some of the UDP militants who were giving the party a bad name on social media in particular.

So, in reality, Ousainu Darboe has never succeeded in doing-away with the allegations or perception problems he faced since 1996, ahead of Saturday’s presidential election. It became clear to me that Ousainu Darboe had had a mountain to climb in persuading the Gambian public, particularly minorities in the country, in respect of these endless perception problems, as soon as I heard APRC deputy leader Ousman ‘Rambo’ Jatta, himself a co-ethnic of Ousainu Darboe, accuse him and the UDP, during an interview with Fatou Touray on the Kerr Fatou YouTube channel, of being tribalistic. Regardless of whether the allegations were unfounded or not, it was actually the symbolism that mattered, coming from Jatta, a former executive member of the UDP and also a co-ethnic of Darboe. True or false, Jatta’s claims or allegations carried a lot of weight with “other” folks: minority ethnic groups.

And of course, the die was cast from the moment Dembo ‘By Force’ Bojang, the national president of the NPP and also religious adviser to President Adama Barrow, stepped onto the NPP political podium in Bakau recently, and accused “a certain party” believed to be UDP, of “engaging in tribal bigotry”.  It became clear to me that Dembo ‘By Force’ Bojang’s remarks, as regretful and despicable as they were, actually hit a raw nerve in most minority communities in The Gambia.

“If we lose Adama Barrow,  all ethnic groups in The Gambia, except one, will be sent out of this country,” an alarmist and scaremonger Dembo ‘By Force’ Bojang said at the rally. In effect, the urgency of Dembo ‘By Force’ Bojang’s voice galvanised minorities into action and also generated, to some extent, an anti-Mandinka sentiment in some parts of the country. Upon hearing this cheap demagoguery coming from Dembo ‘By Force’ Bojang, of all people, who was, for a long time, a close associate of Ousainou Darboe, having served as UDP national president for several years, I knew Darboe’s political fate was sealed.

Dembo ‘By Force’ Bojang’s clarion call on minorities in The Gambia to rally behind President Barrow against Darboe (and his UDP) was enough to seal the fate of the presidential election in the favour of President Barrow. Clearly, most minority voters in The Gambia recognised that their preferred presidential candidates would not win and that the only way they could deny the UDP a win was through a tactical vote for the NPP. The tactical voting seemed spontaneous, but it was in fact, well-coordinated and prepared beforehand with friends, colleagues and family members, particularly from minorities, calling each other and emphasising the need to vote tactically for NPP to deny UDP a victory because there was, as I stated before, an entrenched fear – founded or unfounded – of an incoming UDP government (among most minority communities in The Gambia).

Again, the lesson is as clear as the noon day sun. As Darboe has just found out the hard way, do not let others define you, your life, or your future, as psychologists would often advise clients. It is always risky to let others define your sense of worth. It is imperative that all of us take the time to define ourselves in a complete, authentic, expansive way, and that we see clearly when others, particularly opponents, are trying to define us narrowly or in their own terms, or in relation to what they do want us to be. When others define us narrowly, or incorrectly – we must forthwith, set the record straight by fighting back effectively, to avoid losing crucial parts of ourselves or of our true identities. Unfortunately, Ousainu Darboe failed to do so, effectively, over the years.

Although Darboe was confident of victory, notwithstanding some of us with access to a lot of data or information on the presidential election knew that the odds were stacked against the UDP. For instance, even after Yahya Jammeh’s rejection of the NPP/APRC alliance, an Africa election forecaster in London told me privately, that Jammeh’s change of heart would not be impacting on their previous forecast (to the effect) that President Barrow would win re-election, because they actually started with the premise that Ousainu Darboe was “unelectable”, in a post-Jammeh political environment, based on several convincing facts they were familiar with. In other words, their election forecast that Adama Barrow would win re-election was based, among other things, on the premise that Darboe, by virtue of his (miscalculated) political strategy, had unwittingly rendered himself entirely “unelectable” in a post-Jammeh Gambia which was no longer a majoritarian democracy, but rather a consensus one.

So, the country forecaster told me at the time, that unless a third force emerged or that UDP had forgone its go-it-alone stance and was part of a grand opposition coalition, the advice to their clients would be that Barrow would win re-election. But she said at the time that the formation of a third force or a grand opposition, including UDP, could possibly upset Barrow’s applecart. Without a third force, or a grand opposition, she said this was always going to be a presidential election between the lesser of two evils and that Adama Barrow would be elected as the lesser of two evils. She also told me that Jammeh was a liability to Barrow and therefore, Jammeh’s disavowal of Barrow was a good riddance and will in fact turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Barrow.

Since its formation in 1996, the UDP, because of some of the factors already cited above, particularly the “illusion of truth effect”, struggled to appeal to voters outside their support base and therefore against this backdrop, one of the working assumptions was that Darboe, despite the massive crowds at his political rallies, was “unelectable” because the evidence had shown that there was a “silent majority”, or at least a large block of voters against the UDP presidential candidate.

And it was always assumed that this silent majority would vote en masse, for President Adama Barrow, which would, of course, have an enormous ability to affect the outcome of the presidential election, because this great silent majority was estimated to be up to 450,000 voters. In short, despite the great deal of fanfare preceding the presidential election, Ousainu Darboe always had a very narrow path to victory that would have required appealing, and at the same time, maximising support outside his support base. Of course, Darboe’s support base has always been loyal, energised, and strong, but unfortunately, not enough to deliver victory for the UDP, as we have just found out.

Therefore, the UDP leader lost the presidential election primarily, because in terms of his (battered) image or person, perception had altered reality; and unfortunately, he could not, as a result, overcome a mistrustful and twitchy post-Jammeh political environment with an entrenched fear of an incoming UDP government, or convince minority voters, the bulk of this silent majority, that he (Darboe) could lead them effectively in a multi-ethnic political landscape. This ultimately may have alienated more voters than it attracted. Furthermore, I must reiterate here that Ousainu Darboe’s association with (or perceived embracement of) some hardliners was also a key stumbling block that could have been addressed more decisively. He did not break from some of these people early on and he should have.

You see, it is true that there was an anti-UDP sentiment in the country, whose strength, I think, was underestimated by many UDP militants, but nonetheless it also has to be pointed out that, initially, many of these anti-Darboe voters were not necessarily sold on a Barrow presidency – either. Many had concerns about voting for Adama Barrow. As a result, Barrow was a vulnerable incumbent president, in a precarious political position, as he sought a second term, but notwithstanding, many voters, in the end, voted tactically for the NPP, having seen President Barrow as the lesser evil so to speak: “the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t know”. So, in a nutshell, Gambians have voted for stability and continuity, instead of change. These voters did not want to take a gamble on their future. The UDP leader, to a large extent due to the political approach and gamble he took, always had a limited political ceiling because he was unable to get significant crossover and multi-ethnic support.

Yet, President Barrow has always had multiple bases of support. The lesson is therefore, clear. To win presidential elections in post-Jammeh Gambia, a political party, as demonstrated by Adama Barrow in Saturday’s presidential election, must have diverse bases of support, as this allows for a larger pool of potential voters. Having a single base support, as the UDP has just found out, is a risky political strategy, not worth taking in a post-Jammeh Gambia, which is no longer a majoritarian democracy but rather a consensus one.

Meanwhile, The Gambia is undergoing important social transformations driven, among other things, by the impact of rapid urbanisation, immigration, globalisation and environmental change. For example, The Gambia’s greater urban populations are growing fastest. Rapid urban growth and decrease in the rural population, over the years, have meant that a large share in The Gambia’s overall population now live in the urban areas. So, in political terms, The Gambia is becoming less rural and more urban. Therefore, going forward, the impact of this social transformation (or urban population change) has to be factored into post-Jammeh Gambian politics by our politicians. Of course, the rural vote is still important; yet the urban vote also appears to be gaining greater significance, going forward, as the rapid rate of urbanisation in The Gambia does indicate the shift away from rural living.

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