Yahya Jammeh could have banned the coalition from contesting the 2016 presidential election on constitutional grounds

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By Dr Omar Janneh

In November 2016, seven opposition parties finally did the admirable thing which they could not do for some years.

They came together and formed a coalition that ended some 22 years of Jammeh’s brutal regime.

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Clearly there were a variety of very good reasons that resulted in the coalition 2016 agreement, but the negotiating team could not have struck a deal if they were not acutely aware of what failure to strike an agreement would mean– potential escalation and the continuation of heinous gross rights abuses, bad governance, deliberate adulteration of state and private sector institutions, rampant corruption, further isolation of the country and many other excesses/executive overreaches with their consequent wide-ranging terrible effects on us all.

Given the 22 years of brutality under the APRC regime, coalition 2016 produced a manifesto which was quite attractive to many voters and I think the promise that the coalition would be a transitional government for a period of 3 years, and the corrective programme of activities the coalition promised to implement during the transitional period may have proven particularly appealing to all Gambians. Indeed it may have been also quite reassuring to Gambians that the flagbearer affirmed his commitment and loyalty to the coalition 2016 agreement.

As a result, many individuals and civil society organisations came together and gave whatever they could to help the coalition win the 2016 elections. Thus, there was something quite beautiful about the Gambian character and the character of our politicians in 2016.

The hopes of Gambians, after the 2016 elections, for a brighter and better future have been understandably high.

Disappointingly, as soon as they or some of the leadership of the coalition got into office, it seems that, in general, we and the politicians lost something– capacity to perform, integrity/morality? Did our judgement and desire to do good become clouded by the milk and honey that they or some of us started to benefit from the new administration? Do we not know what public service is about? We now know that the flagbearer has changed his mind; he is no longer committed and loyal to the coalition agreement on grounds that the deal was apparently an unsigned gentlemen’s agreement. If such an utterance from any partner to an agreement is not an ungentlemanly and an unprecedented show of untrustworthiness and disappointingly deceiving and insulting, I do not know what is.

I wonder if he is acting alone or did some lousy individual(s) poison his mind? Are we where we are because power has the obnoxious capacity to corrupt a weak, greedy, dishonest and unethical leader?
As we move closer to year three of President Adama Barrow’s presidency, the subject of whether he should remain committed and loyal to the coalition agreement and stay in office for only 3 years is a subject of much debate.

Indeed anyone who follows Gambian politics, cannot fail to notice the differing views on the issue of whether the “coalition government”, should honour the coalition agreement– should it be 3 years or 5 years as per the 1997 constitution? But as this debate goes on, one issue that has been on my mind for a long while is whether Jammeh could have banned the coalition from contesting in the 2016 presidential elections on constitutional grounds. You are probably saying that we do not have to worry about that now, but we must not forget that the current President is a Jammeh-like figure– he is learning all of the dirty tricks of the Jammeh regime.

Jammeh told us that theirs was going to be brief and that they would go back to the barracks, yet it was everything (- too little good and very much bad) but short-lived.

He worked with like-minded people to adulterate the constitution to, more generally, suit their desires at the detriment of Gambians. Some might opt for the usual default position that we were meant to go through some 22 years of brutality.

That come 2016, Jammeh could not think of any magic formula to help him win the elections and that the time had come for a new political dispensation.

I get all of that, but let’s imagine if he had used the 1997 constitution to ban/frustrate the coalition from contesting the 2016 elections based on the transitional period of 3 years coalition 2016 campaigned on. And guess what he would say if we didn’t like it.

In general, most hold the view that good governance underpinned by trust, honesty, integrity, dynamism and much else are fundamental ingredients that sustain the survival and legacy of any leadership.

Given the strong views expressed by some individuals about the need to uphold the 1997 constitution– which favours President Barrow’s stay in office for 5 years, against the coalition 2016 agreement of 3 years, I have wondered if there was ever any expressed views that queried the unconstitutionality of the coalition 2016 agreement of 3 years.

In other words, did anyone of us asked the coalition partners to go back to the negotiating room because the 3 years they agreed and put to us was unconstitutional? In my view, the 3 years promised by the coalition may have been quite attractive to the electorate to unseat the brutal APRC government.

But, did the Jammeh-led government, confident of victory, forget to or could they have used the constitutional provision of 5 years to block the coalition from contesting the 2016 elections on constitutional grounds? Would Jammeh’s application of such a strategy (close to the December 2016 elections) caused chaos and paralysis of the coalition negotiations and handed victory to the APRC if the coalition partners could not agree to a transitional period of 5 years? What could we have done about such an overreach if we did not like it? Going forward, is there any likelihood that any Gambian President with a similar disposition to Jammeh (such as President Barrow) ban a coalition(s) from contesting in elections if the term of office of the coalition(s) falls outside the provisions of the constitution?
It seems to me that through deliberate deception, gross selfishness, weakened moral compass, and calculated dishonesty, President Barrow and his supporters (or constitutionalists) are about to disregard the utility of a very effective formula that gave us the power to remove a brutal dictator, and through that mischievous and potentially calamitous strategy create a true Jammeh-like leader.

Briefly, it appears to me that in November 2016, we seemingly failed to defend the “unconstitutionality of the 3 years” put to us by the coalition partners, yet through sheer political opportunism and political prostitution, some of us now appear very determined to defend– at any cost- that President Barrow should remain in office for 5 years on constitutional grounds, against the widely accepted, widely publicised and internationally-respected coalition agreement.

Indeed after much positive publicity in regards to the way we used an effective tool (coalition) to uproot a brutal dictatorial regime, it seems to me that there is still something that needs to be deciphered about the characters of some Gambians and or Gambian politicians.

As we pave the way towards creating an untrustworthy, fundamentally clueless and dangerously hopeless and incompetent leader, the eyes of the world are on us– we seem to be dishonestly hiding under the cover of the provision of the 1997 constitution as if the 1997 constitution came after the coalition 2016 agreement or that the coalition partners were not familiar with the provisions of the 1997 constitution.

Again, we did not publicly raise any objections to any aspects of the coalition 2016 agreement. What is wrong with the Gambian character?
While it is pleasing that Gambians take great interest in politics and the political process, the proliferation of political parties in the country seem to underscore the potential need for alliances/coalitions between the parties to help win an election. But then if we have learnt anything from the past, I think the negotiating parties are only likely to emerge with a deal if the partners can trust each other; so our word and trust are important; we have to mean what we say.

The coalition partners promised that during the transitional period, they would work on important wide-ranging reforms to help recalibrate and project the country’s image towards some semblance of normalcy and that the leadership of the coalition would prepare the country for fresh elections, but that the flagbearer will not seek for re-election.

The coalition shared this message and campaigned up and down the country that they would be in office for a transitional period of 3 years.

It follows from that that of the many that voted for the coalition, they did so on the understanding that the coalition would stay in power for 3 and not 5 years. In fact upon winning the 2016 elections, Barrow can be heard reiterating the point, as per the Coalition 2016 agreement, that he would only in office for a transitional period- fast forward to 3.10-3.30mins of the clip.

Some individuals, e.g. the UDP leader, consider it appropriate to take the position that everyone who voted in the 2016 Presidential elections did so knowing that if any one of the President candidates won the elections, he would serve for 5 years as per the 1997 constitution. I think most individuals hold the alternative view that those that voted for the APRC and GDC in the 2016 elections did so knowing that if either party won the elections, they would be in office for 5 years.

But I do not think that the same is true for the coalition because they campaigned on a transitional period of 3 years. In my view, those who (now) hold the view that the coalition government is to stay in power for 5 years may have shifted their position- since the elections- possibly because of their own interests or that they may be deliberately massaging the truth. Most objectively-minded voters liked what the coalition offered: the vision, core objectives, and the corrective programme of activities of the coalition.

In general, Gambians wanted to unseat the brutal APRC regime and replace it with a transitional leadership team that will seek to reset the vision of the country and once more restore the dignity of the people of The Gambia.

Thus I hold the view that the leadership and supporters of both the APRC and GDC as well as those that voted for the coalition knew that a coalition-led government would serve for 3 and not 5 years.

To me at least, the following notions as grounds for the “coalition government” to default on the agreement seem flawed, dishonest and inexcusable: 1) that the coalition is no longer intact and therefore unenforceable; 2) that the coalition government is not able to actualise its objectives during its 3 years in office and so needs more time– that is because they are dangerously incompetent; 3) that there is no credible alternative to replace the current leadership- well there is time for “team saviour” to come forward, and 4) that the Independent Electoral Commission is not ready– on constitutional grounds or that it has unclear funding source to conduct elections in 2019.

I think we have to ask the following: When did President Barrow lose his moral compass? When did the leadership of the coalition lose the political will and their moral compass to continue to remain committed and loyal to the coalition agreement; and was any individual(s) responsible for its loss of commitment and loyalty to the agreed deal? From the outset, one wonders whether the leadership of the coalition had the political will and the moral compass to overcome any challenges and prepare for the unexpected in regards to fulfilling any of the objectives of the coalition agreement.

What seems clear is that they are concentrating much of their political energies on principally self-development and on vanity projects that have, to a large part, by design or inadvertently distracted us/them as well as possibly reduced our productivity at a time when the country needs us to be very productive.

Clearly President Barrow has changed his mind and since we cannot rely on the NAMs to do their constitutional duties without fear or favour– as many of them are conflicted and dangerously ineffective-, time will tell who will blink first. Will it be President Barrow, the operation 3 years jotna campaign group or the Barrow for 5 years group? President Barrow and his team are moving on a very sticky surface; there are very good reasons why they must quickly find their moral compass and honour the coalition agreement to serve for three years.

Finally, here is a big ask which was expressed previously: While a political process is needed to settle the issue of whether President Barrow should stay in office for 3 or 5 years, I think there is probably some good grounds for the Constitutional Review Commission to measure public perception of how we navigate our way through a coalition agreement/coalition government with a view to including something on it in the new constitution so that the path to bringing about a change of government through a coalition can be smooth. This will minimise the potential for civil discord. I hope that we will be vigilant enough to never ever groom a leader like Yahya Jammeh.

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