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The Gambia hopes for a new dawn after election trauma

Aloa Alota, co-ordinator of the Centre for Media and Development Research in Africa, takes a personal look at the downfall of Yahya Jammeh
After several false starts, the Gambia’s opposition finally got it right – Adama Barrow, a businessman – was chosen as the standard-bearer of an opposition coalition comprising eight political parties for the presidential election in December.
It was an epic contest involving three gladiators all born the same year that the Gambia gained independence from Great Britain, 1965. They were: Yahya Jammeh of the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction; Mamma Kandeh of the Gambia Democratic Congress; and Adama Barrow of the opposition coalition whose slogan We Are Stronger Together underwrites a collective determination to bring about a new order.
While the opposition coalition is widely derided as a marriage of convenience that carries within it the seed of its own inevitable destruction, it has at least for now sent Yahya Jammeh packing, thus bringing to an end his 22-year iron-fist rule over the Gambia.
The Independent Electoral Commission duly declared Adama Barrow the winner and president-elect of the Gambia, the day after the election. He polled 263, 515 votes over his closest rival Yahya Jammeh who had 212, 099 votes, and Mamma Kandeh, who trailed with 102,919 votes.
Tension over the outcome was muted, but the sceptre of unrest loomed large. In the build-up to polling day, there was speculation that Jammeh would rather take to the trenches than concede defeat. Consequently, there was a run on the banks; families stocked up and withdrew their children from school; and school administrations wisely declared a relatively long mid-term break. As the Internet had been blocked before election day, people got their news from television and radio, and exchanged phone calls.
Parents did their best to reassure inquisitive and nervous children that all was well, yet the tension would not go away. Then the phone call came through, with Jammeh’s high-pitched voice cackling down the line. “Adama, congratulations; our country is now in your hands,” he said.
Gracious in defeat, Jammeh, who had barred Western election observers from observing the polls, noted with glee and pride that the Gambia’s presidential election was “the most transparent election in the world”, reinforcing his conviction, often expressed in bizarre ways, that Africans should take full responsibility for their own affairs.
Stunned, people stared at one another in disbelief. “Could this be real”, they said to one another in voices barely above whisper.
Then, as the belief that a seismic change had just occurred sunk in, the celebrations began. Jubilant crowds thronged the streets in the Greater Banjul Area, whooping and chanting “We Barrow”.  Barrow’s supporters leaned out of cars waving the coalition flag.
The arc of history has come full circle: a man born in the year Gambia became independent had taken the country, as Jammeh himself put it, from “the Stone Age to the Modern Age”, and now another one born the same year was poised to take it further in the direction of freedom and democracy. Dictatorship, the people sigh in relief, is extinct and now liberty beckons.
From this perspective, the notion of a ‘New Gambia’ is a misnomer because nations are not so neatly segregated into a binary opposition of old and new – it is a continuum, as the task of nation-building is based on continuity within change.  Overnight, Jammeh became a democratic icon, lauded across the continent and beyond for respecting the will of the people as freely expressed at the polls. Liberia’s Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson hailed his concession of defeat as a triumph for African democracy.
Meanwhile, social media was alive with rumours.  Anyone with a smartphone, coupled with a fertile imagination, translated their fantasies into “facts” and uploaded the concoctions onto social media to take a life of their own.  The rumours amused as much as they confused. They included Jammeh conceding defeat at gun point; that he was going to the International Criminal Court; that he was under house arrest at State House, and that his wife had tried to flee to Senegal but been turned back.
Then the unexpected happened. The Electoral Commission admitted certain statistical errors but insisted they had not affected the outcome. But that was all it took for Jammeh to cry foul, annul the results, call for a fresh election and sealed off the Commission premises under armed guards.
The Gambia Bar Association now got involved, dismissing Jammeh’s claims as a farce. For them, Jammeh only complained when it suited him. This triggered a string of appeals from within and abroad, all imploring Jammeh to give way for Adama Barrow. An ECOWAS mediation team consisting of Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, Muhammadu Buhari and John Mahama went back home empty-handed.
At least a dozen ambassadors had by now resigned or been sacked. Then one by one, the ministers threw in the towel, with some reminding Jammeh that “it is never too late to do the right thing”.   Still, tension mounted. Amidst all this, two radio stations were closed down and some Barrow supporters were detained.
Undeterred, the coalition maintained that the inauguration of Adama Barrow was irreversible. Adama Barrow would be sworn in on 19th January on a Gambian soil, no matter what.
But how would it happen? People kept asking. Sand bag emplacements had been erected, with soldiers on high alert.
Still, the rumour mills buzzed – Jammeh had hired Liberian combatants to fight for him, he was plotting a palace coup, the army was  divided into pro- and anti-Jammeh camps.
Then, on January 19 inn the modest premises of the Gambian high commission in Dakar, Senegal, was indeed sworn-in as the third President of the Republic of The Gambia.
On the request of the Commander–in-Chief of the Gambian Armed Forces, ECOWAS troops led by the Senegalese marched on the Gambia.
Still, Jammeh would not budge, and the tension was palpable.
Other nationals who had lived through similar experiences spoke of the ominous calm that usually precedes a storm. “This was how it all started in Sierra Leone and Liberia,” they said to anyone within earshot. “We all thought that nothing would happen and many stayed behind; it was all calm and serene and then the rebels came and killed.”
Fear and tension were rising dramatically and a mass exodus out of the Gambia got underway. The Smiling Coast of Africa, beloved for its uncommon peace and tranquillity, seemed about to experience something very different.  Then, the Guinean and Mauritanian presidents counterpart flew in to talk Jammeh out of his obstinacy and give peace a chance.
The advancing ECOWAS troops issued Jammeh an ultimatum to quit voluntarily or be forced out.
As though taunting the ECOWAS forces, a calm and composed Jammeh appeared in public to attend the Jumaa at the State House Mosque and then returned to continue with the negotiations.
Even as his government was crumbling, Jammeh remained undaunted. Then, word got out that he had agreed to step down.  Wary of Jammeh’s wiles and unpredictability, people preferred to wait and see before taking to the streets in jubilation.
But on the night of Saturday, 21 January, Yahya Jammeh exited the same way he had ruled – in style and flamboyance. Unlike Idi Amin, Mobutu, Gbagbo and Compaore, the other strong men of Africa with whom he was frequently compared, Yahya Jammeh left  on his own terms.   On his way out of power, he gave a farewell speech to a weary nation, rode in a long convoy cheered by party supporters, and received red carpet treatment at the airport before going to Equatorial Guinea, his home for now.
He is liked and detested in equal measure by both sides of the divide, turning old allies into bitter foes and former enemies into  admirers. His swagger and imperious posture have created an aura that continues to fascinate friend and foe alike.
If it is true that the rallying cry against Yahya Jammeh was triggered by a slur on a certain ethnic group, as some have suggested, then this is a dangerous scenario. Blind ethnic loyalty can be a two-edged sword because ethnic bigotry devours its own when there is no one else to maul. History has many examples of governments that rode to power on a wave of popular support only to leave their support base disenchanted. A prime example is the disillusionment that marked post-independence Africa, leading to military coups and civil wars, whose legacies plague the continent even now.

About the author

Debbie Ransome

Editor, Caribbean Intelligence

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