Will The Gambia's Autocratic Ruler Accept Defeat And Allow Peaceful Transition of Power?
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh speaks during a press conference following his reelection in Banjul, Gambia, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2006. Thousands of people turned out to celebrate his reelection to a third five-year term. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

When everyone expected the 2016 electoral calendar to bring no further surprises, The Gambia made headlines with a shocking victory of Adama Barrow in the presidential vote. Completely unknown to the international community, he was not expected to pose any threat to incumbent Yahya Jammeh, a strongman who has ruled the smallest country on the African continent for the last 22 years. Yet the democracy has spoken and, quite surprisingly, Mr Jammeh conceded defeat. The western media love underdogs hence no wonder they were quick to share the story of a former security guard at an appliance retailer shop in London who won the elections against an autocratic head of state, who said no mortal could take his position. It has also been refreshingly positive news following a number of dubious elections in Sub-Saharan Africa, either violent or suspiciously won by incumbents (like in Niger, Uganda or Gabon). In some cases the elections were postponed due to security concerns (Somalia) or due to the ruler’s reluctance to call the plebiscite which would make him step down (Democratic Republic of Congo).

The tiny country is a popular tourist destination due to its picturesque beaches and exotic forests, but the economy has been suffering from the confrontational attitude of its outgoing president and his stubborn isolationism. In 2013 he unilaterally pulled out of the Commonwealth, recently he announced that in order to completely cut the post-colonial ties with the UK, English would no longer be the official language. As summarized by Reporters Without Borders, Jammeh “created a climate of terror around anything remotely to do with journalism”. He also made the European Union suspend its development aid due to restoration of death penalty in 2012. Recently the United Nations’ genocide prevention unit condemned his hostile rhetoric aimed at one ethnic group, the Mandinka. In October 2016 the incumbent announced his intention to pull The Gambia out of the International Criminal Court – a decision which his successor has already promised to change, along with re-joining the Commonwealth. The wind of change has already started blowing as 19 political prisoners have been freed on bail on Monday, just 3 days after the election. One of them is Ousainou Darboe, the president-elect’s political godfather and the United Democratic Party iconic leader, who was arrested in April.

According to the constitution, Adama Barrow must be sworn in within sixty days of the vote. If this indeed happens, the to-do list will be quote long if The Gambia wants to take a long term advantage of its unexpected fortune. First of all the economy needs diversification – currently it mainly sells woven fabrics, wood, nuts and cattle. All manufacturing inputs and most foods must be imported though and the weakness of the currency (Dalasi) has put an additional strain on the budget. Tourism accounts for 40% of The Gambia’s revenue (60% of which comes from the UK) and the Ebola crisis hit the coffers very badly. According to the World Bank the country’s GDP has fallen in dollar terms from $952 billion in 2010 $851 billion a year ago. In line with the Jammeh’s delusional program called “2020 Vision”, The Gambia was supposed to beat poverty by the end of next year and become a middle-income state within the next 4 years. The reality is much less colorful – there are currently only less than 20 poorer countries in the entire world. The food inflation is close to a double-digit figure and the unemployment exceeds 20%. While the public debt has slightly improved in the recent years, it still stands at approx. 75-80% of the GDP. The country is highly dependent on foreign aid.

It is still not clear whether the elections are really over as some commentators suggest that Jammeh was unnaturally quick to concede (he did not even wait for the official results) as he must have underestimated his rival and did not prepare a plan to retain power in case of the electoral loss. It looks almost too good to be true and it is not yet known what Jammeh is planning to do. Two decades have been more than enough to gather an army of loyal soldiers to defend his massive wealth. An amicable transfer of power has never occurred in Gambia as Jammeh seized power in 1994 in a bloodless coup d’etat which overthrown the country’s first ever president, Dawda Jawara, who had ruled since 1970. Mr Barrow will need to walk very carefully in this unchartered territory. On the one hand we will not want to let down his supporters, many of whom demand justice for the tyrant and his entourage, but on the other, Jammeh is relatively young and still enjoys a sizable support among many Gambians, and it sounds unlikely that he will peacefully let his opponents persecute him and confiscate his treasures. A balanced reconciliation process will be tricky because the list of Jammeh’s atrocities is long. Barrow and his political circle often refer to Nelson Mandela as their inspiration and it is perhaps in everyone’s best interest that Madiba’s approach is emulated in West Africa.


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Krzysztof Lasocki, CFA, is a senior analyst at a London-based investment consultancy advising pension schemes.

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