A turn­ing point for the ‘smil­ing face of Africa’?

Will Gam­bia’s elec­tion crisis come to an end and the will of the peo­ple be re­spected?

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

GAM­BIA’S pres­i­den­tial elec­tion crisis has been of par­tic­u­lar per­sonal in­ter­est for me. Be­tween 2013 and 2014, I lived in the coun­try as a law lec­turer at the Univer­sity of The Gam­bia. The ex­pe­ri­ence was a fan­tas­tic one and helped me to un­der­stand why the coun­try and its in­hab­i­tants are af­fec­tion­ately re­ferred to as the “smil­ing face of Africa”.

It was a year that moulded and shaped me, but also in some re­spects shocked me. Dur­ing one of my lec­tures, I looked up to see an un­fa­mil­iar face. Stu­dents later in­formed me that the in­di­vid­ual was a mem­ber of the na­tional in­tel­li­gence agency de­tailed to mon­i­tor anti-gov­ern­ment sen­ti­ment.

This, how­ever, is barely the tip of the ice­berg of the ways in which Yahya Jam­meh, de­feated fi­nally in the De­cem­ber 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, be­haved to­wards Gam­bia and its cit­i­zens. Since Jam­meh came into power in 1994, hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions have be­come a com­mon­place tool the regime uses to stay in power.

Vi­o­la­tions high­lighted by in­ter­na­tional ob­servers in­clude nu­mer­ous in­ci­dents of al­leged tor­ture, en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances, ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion and de­pri­va­tion of free­dom of speech. Af­ter an at­tempted coup in 2014, a num­ber of al­leged plot­ters were held in­com­mu­ni­cado. Three later died in sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances af­ter be­ing cap­tured.

In May 2015, Jam­meh fired all the pre­sid­ing judges of the Supreme Court, bar one, leav­ing the court dor­mant. He was ap­par­ently an­gry at their de­ci­sion to com­mute a num­ber of death sen­tences to life sen­tences. Last year, a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the op­po­si­tion party died af­ter be­ing ar­rested while peace­fully protest­ing for elec­toral re­form.

Sim­i­larly, elec­tions held be­tween 1994 and 2016 have been re­peat­edly crit­i­cised for be­ing un­demo­cratic and un­fairly con­ducted. This al­lowed Jam­meh to win five con­cur­rent elec­tions and re­main in power for 22 years.

Af­ter win­ning the 2011 elec­tion, Jam­meh was so con­fi­dent he would re­main in power he claimed that he was prepared to rule for “1 bil­lion years” if Al­lah willed it.

This made the re­sults of the elec­tion held at the end of 2016 so sur­pris­ing. Adama Bar­row of the United Demo­cratic Party won the race with 43.3 per­cent of the vote.

Even more sur­pris­ing than Bar­row’s win was Jam­meh’s ini­tial ac­cep­tance of the re­sult. This ap­par­ent ac­cep­tance even in­cluded a phone call to Bar­row in which Jam­meh con­ceded de­feat and con­grat­u­lated his op­po­nent on his win. But the dreams of democ­racy were short­lived.

Less than a week af­ter the elec­tion re­sults were an­nounced, the United Demo­cratic Party stated its in­ten­tion to pros­e­cute the out­go­ing leader for nu­mer­ous crimes com­mit­ted dur­ing his pres­i­dency. A few days later, Jam­meh re­sponded by re­ject­ing the elec­tion re­sults. The in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion of Jam­meh’s de­ci­sion to con­test the elec­tion re­sults was swift. The UN has urged him to re­spect the elec­tion re­sults and to trans­fer power, with­out de­lay, to Bar­row.

The African Union, the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States (Ecowas) and the UN sec­re­tary-general re­leased a joint state­ment call­ing on the gov­ern­ment to abide by its con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and to re­spect the will of the peo­ple.

Ecowas and Sene­gal, which is a mem­ber and Gam­bia’s clos­est neigh­bour, have gone so far as to mo­bilise troops to in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily if Jam­meh re­fuses to step down on Jan­uary 19, the day of Bar­row’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

There have also been dis­sent­ing voices within the coun­try. Nu­mer­ous na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions have protested Jam­meh’s de­ci­sion, in­clud­ing sev­eral imams, the Gam­bian Chris­tian Coun­cil, the Gam­bian Med­i­cal Coun­cil and the Gam­bian Bar As­so­ci­a­tion.

Fi­nally, a civil so­ci­ety ini­tia­tive for in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zens, #Gam­bi­aHasDe­cided, is up and run­ning. The cam­paign calls for Jam­meh to step down, to peace­fully trans­fer power to Bar­row, and to re­store democ­racy.

One of the cam­paign’s found­ing lead­ers, Raffie Diab, was a friend of mine while I was in Gam­bia. Diab said the ini­tia­tive had be­come a tar­get of in­tim­i­da­tion and hos­til­ity from state se­cu­rity ser­vices.

Diab and Salieu Taal, the ini­tia­tive’s chair­per­son, fled the coun­try af­ter cred­i­ble re­ports warned of their im­pend­ing ar­rest. Oth­ers as­so­ci­ated with the cam­paign have been ar­rested and held in­com­mu­ni­cado, al­legedly for wear­ing one of the cam­paign T-shirts.

None­the­less, Diab and #Gam­bi­aHasDe­cided are con­fi­dent and hope­ful about the fu­ture for Gam­bia. They be­lieve that Jam­meh will per­mit a peace­ful tran­si­tion of power over the next few days. Their be­lief is based on sev­eral fac­tors.

First, the re­cent res­ig­na­tion of Jam­meh’s in­for­ma­tion min­is­ter is seen as a sign of his regime weak­en­ing.

The other im­por­tant fac­tor is Jam­meh’s le­gal chal­lenge con­test­ing the va­lid­ity of the elec­tion re­sults. The Supreme Court de­clined to hear the case on Jan­uary 10, say­ing it did not have the ca­pac­ity and could hear cases only in May and Novem­ber. This is a sit­u­a­tion pre­cip­i­tated by Jam­meh when he fired the pre­sid­ing judges of the Supreme Court in 2015.

Fol­low­ing the court de­ci­sion, Jam­meh vowed to stay put un­til a rul­ing was made on his pe­ti­tion, now un­likely un­til May. West African me­di­a­tors, led by Nige­rian Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari, ar­rived in the coun­try on Thurs­day for a last-gasp diplo­matic push to per­suade Jam­meh to step down. Diab be­lieves this meet­ing with Jam­meh may ap­ply suf­fi­cient diplo­matic pres­sure to en­cour­age him to peace­fully step down.

But most im­por­tantly for the #Gam­bi­aHasDe­cided move­ment is the change on the ground. Diab noted that, for the first time since Jam­meh came to power, there has been open dis­sent.

Three years ago when I was liv­ing and work­ing in Gam­bia, this would have been unimag­in­able.

The #Gam­bi­aHasDe­cided cam­paign is in­dica­tive of real change, and of real hope. – The Con­ver­sa­tion Sophie Gal­lop is a doc­toral can­di­date and teach­ing as­so­ci­ate, Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham

STAY­ING PUT: Gam­bia’s Yahya Jam­meh

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