Gambia: Full of Surprises

Published 8th December 2016

Last week Gambian President Yayha Jammeh accepted defeat after losing the election to a business man by the name of Adama Barrow. Whilst this should just be a normal occurrence, it is actually cause for celebration and comes as a massive surprise as it does not happen often enough in Africa. Too often leaders who have been in power for over two decades like Jammeh, refuse to accept defeat, yet he has stunned the world with his concession. Jammeh and events in Gambia continue to surprise the world for both good and bad reasons.

Jammeh, whose full and cumbersome title is “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa” has been the “Commander In Chief of The Armed Forces and Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of the Gambia” for 22 years. He came into power by way of a military coup at the young age of 29 in 1994, ousting Dawda Jawara. Jawara had been President since 1970, having been elected five times.

On the list of terrible surprises is the extreme level of human rights abuses in Gambia. Jammeh’s time in power has been marred with allegations of unimaginable human rights abuses. Torture, enforced disappearances, restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, and murder are just a few of the crimes he has been accused of. Journalists, human rights defenders, political opposition, religious leaders, lesbians and gays all form part of his hit list.

In particular, the extreme nature of his homophobic utterances have been a surprisingly shocking. Jammeh is quoted as saying, “As far as I am concerned, LGBT can only stand for Leprosy, Gonorrhoea, Bacteria and Tuberculosis, all of which are detrimental to human existence” and has promoted the beheading of gay and lesbian people.

In his 2005 report, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture raised his concerns about the prevalence of torture in the country, particularly in prisons. The report includes mention of severe beatings, electrocution, asphyxiation and the dripping melted plastic onto a person’s skin as part of a technique used to punish and extort information. This is just a preview of what has transpired under Jammeh’s rule. Given this history of oppression and alarming disregard for human rights, Jammeh’s concession comes as a very pleasant surprise.

To be fair, Jammeh has surprised the world in other positive ways. He has taken very progressive steps to protect the rights of women and girls. Jammeh has strongly opposed the practice of female genital mutilation in Gambia, banning it in 2015 and declaring that it had no place in Islam or in any modern society. Female genital mutilation statistics are high in Gambia where 76.3per cent of girls have experienced some form of female genital mutilation.

He also banned child marriages in Gambia in 2016 and imposed heavy penalties for offenders. This was an important step given that 46.5% of girls marry before the age of 18.

Unfortunately, the list of pleasant surprises is short.

Jammeh implemented tried and tested election oppression tactics during the election campaign which makes his loss and concession even more surprising. Voters had no access to the internet 24 hours before the polling stations opened. Making or receiving international calls was also restricted. Jammeh claimed that this was necessary to prevent unrest. Months before the election Jammeh used state resources to campaign whilst opposition members were allegedly targeted and intimidated.

The next surprise to come from this situation is the election of a relatively unknown individual. Little is known about President Elect Adama Barrow who will be sworn in 60 days from the day he was announced as the winner. Hopefully, Barrow’s swearing in will mark Gambia’s first truly peaceful transition since the nation gained independence in 1965.

Peaceful transitions and the acceptance of new leadership do not happen as often as they should in Africa. For example, President Joseph Kabila, in the Democratic Republic of Congo had the same opportunity to hold free and fair elections this year, yet sadly elections have been postponed. He remains in power despite exceeding his constitutionally prescribed term limit whilst civil unrest and instability plague the nation. Burundi finds itself in a similar position with President Pierre Nkurunziza holding on to power despite the people agitating for reform. The unrest has resulted in the allegations of crimes against humanity as Nkurunziza’s government mercilessly persecutes those seeking change.

Perhaps the rest of Africa’s longstanding leaders who continue to stifle democracy can take a page out of Jammeh’s book in this regard. The election of Barrow is an important victory for self-determination in Gambia, yet it is tragic that peaceful, credible democratic changes of government are regarded as pleasant surprises instead of normal occurrences in Africa.

** This article originally appeared in the Star newspaper on 8 December 2016

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