The Gambia is approaching presidential elections on 4 December 2021. This will be the first vote since the electoral defeat of former President Yahya Jammeh by a coalition of opposition parties, ending 22 years of dictatorship. That unprecedented political event brought the promise for democratic governance – but is it being fulfilled?
After President Adama Barrow took office in January 2017, an ambitious transitional justice program was launched which saw the launching of a number of processes and institutions such as the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), security sector and civil service reforms as well as concerted effort to ensure the enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms. While several legal reforms were promised, in 2020, the constitutional replacement project stalled following the rejection of the Draft Constitution by the National Assembly. There were efforts to revitalize the process in 2021 with the support of Nigeria’s Former President Goodluck Jonathan, but these failed, in large part due issues around the presidential term limit operating retroactively and the increasing focus of political leaders on the upcoming elections.
The next presidential election will be central to cementing the country’s transition to a democratic state and the stakes are extremely high. Important contextual vulnerabilities such as legal, political, and socio-economic drivers will contribute to the risk of election-related violence, and there is also a threat that the country’s democratic transition will be subverted by the return to government of Jammeh himself.
The legislative and institutional framework governing elections remain inadequate
The 1997 Constitution is considered a relic of the Jammeh regime. The limitations in the law and the capacity of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) are at the centre of the issues identified by pro-reformers. For example, Section 12(2)(e) of the Elections Act provides that either a birth certificate, ID card, passport or an “attestation” should be produced in order to register to vote. An attestation is a document that confirms you were born in a particular locality, and can be given by a district chief or village Alkalo. The issue of attestation was one of the 12-point demands issued by the Gambia Opposition for Electoral Reforms (GOFER) on the basis that it was a potentially fraudulent mechanism that should be abolished.
The limitations of the current system are further exacerbated by the fact that the IEC lacks in-house legal capacity, and has therefore tended to defer authority to the Mayor of Banjul regarding attestations. Consequently, two CSOs (Centre for Research and Policy Development and Gambia Participates) and a local city councillor took the matter to the high court in July 2021 and successfully obtained a declaration that the Mayor has no authority to grant or approve attestations.
The issue of diaspora voting is another matter that highlights the gaps in the framework as the IEC has been unable to implement this constitutional right. Section 39 of the Constitution requires every citizen to be registered in a National Assembly constituency which has been pegged at 53 (s.88). The Commission initially argued that it lacked adequate resources to do so, however, and then later made a submission that the Constitution needed to be amended in order to allow for new constituencies to be created so that these could be used to register the diaspora.
Observers have argued that there is no need for a constitutional amendment since Gambians in foreign countries could be registered in the name of the constituencies they originally came from or previously resided in before they left the country. As a result of the lack of registration for the diaspora, a series of legal actions were undertaken by a combination of individuals and CSOs against the IEC and the Attorney General. In January 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that every citizen is entitled to be registered and vote in public elections. When it was clear that this might not happen, the same parties then took the matter to the high court seeking an order in June 2021 to force the IEC act upon the declaration of the Supreme Court, but this was not succesful.
The Gambia’s transition away from voting by casting translucent marbles into a metallic drum and towards using ballot papers has also been stalled despite the increasing number of political parties and candidates – which will make the “marble system” a logistical nightmare. Despite this, the fact that the Elections Bill 2020 has not progressed since the second reading at the National Assembly in June 2021 means that this issue is unlikely to be addressed.
Fragmentation and polarisation
The fragmentation and polarisation of the Gambian political landscape are evident given the eighteen registered political parties and more than five individuals have also expressed their intention to stand for president in the December polls. Even as a multiparty democracy, the field is already crowded for a country that is 11 thousand square kilometres in size with a voter population of 962,157. What this indicates is the proliferation of divergent and dissenting narratives across the political divide despite closely aligned ideological basis and increasing polarisation across ethnic lines.
Many Gambian political parties are highly ethnicised, not necessarily by design but by default. Given the limited development of party structures and nationwide institutions, it has become common for voters to align with parties led by their kinsfolk. For example, APRC draws more passionate support among the Jola community because of Yahya Jammeh, just as UDP enjoys strong support from the Mandinka thanks to Ousainou Darboe, while the GDC does well among the Fula because of Mama Kandeh, the NPP gains support from the Sarahule and Fula communities due to Adama Barrow, and PDOIS benefits from Wolof votes because of Halifa Sallah. However, it is important to note that politics isn’t simply an ethnic census, and all these parties have varied ethnic groups represented in their leadership and membership.
Partly as a result of this tendency, Gambian politics has always seen examples of insults and political intolerance including the use of divisive “tribal” stereotypes and these seem to be becoming increasingly virulent and violent. As we approach the next election, the state of political intolerance, religious and ethnic politics has reached alarming proportions, triggering concerns that the country may experience damaging political conflict if adequate responses are not urgently taken to address the situation.
The more things change the more they stay the same
The recently announced alliance between the parties of President Barrow and the former President Jammeh – bringing together the former dictator and the man who was supposed to have cast him out of politics – has also generated resentment and further polarisation of the political landscape. After much speculation, Barrow’s NPP and Jammeh’s APRC have formed an alliance on 2 September 2021 to contest the 4 December presidential elections as an alliance.
The MOU cementing the NPP/APRC alliance has not been publicly released by both parties, and they have dismissed a document circulating on social media purported to be the agreement as a fake. In that document, it is allegedly agreed that Barrow will be the presidential candidate and if the alliance wins Jammeh will be granted unconditional amnesty to return home. It further states that Jammeh will be entitled to claim all benefits and allowances due to former presidents, from 2017 onwards. Above all, the alleged agreement states that the TRRC recommendations on the prosecution of human rights violations will be abandoned and amnesty provided to all those associated with those violations.
The announcement of the agreement triggered a swift response from the victim community, human rights activists, CSOs as well as other political parties, who all raised concerns about the threat it poses to democratic consolidation and the transitional justice program, especially the TRRC. These have raised concerns as to the commitment of the President to the full and expeditious implementation of the TRRC recommendations, which are expected to be presented to him by end of September 2021 after two initial submission dates were postponed. This has therefore led to questions about the overall commitment of Barrow’s government to justice, accountability and democracy – and hence has raised concerns of electoral manipulation.
Given these challenges, there is an urgent need for action-oriented political dialogue to build bridges between different parties and groups to ensure a peaceful election. The prevailing political environment of acrimony and intolerance is not a passing phase, but should be understood as being rooted in a background of intense bitterness borne out of the longstanding period of authoritarian rule in the country.
Resolving this crisis will therefore take more than just words – it will take practical steps that must deal both with hate speech and violence and also take seriously the need to deal with the legacies of the authoritarian past. Otherwise, it is not only Gambian democracy that will be at risk, but also political stability and national unity.
Satang Nabaneh (@DrSatangNabaneh) is the Director of Programs at the University of Dayton Human Rights Centre and the Founder of Law Hub Gambia.