The Gambia’s elections leave little hope for change

Yahya Jammeh has been president for 17 years, presiding over a major increase in poverty.

yahya jammeh
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has vowed to remain in office ‘one billion years if Allah says so’ [EPA]

The Gambia’s presidential election has past but the country’s political climate has yet to fully settle, even though the president will continue to hold the position he has been occupying for the past 17 years.

President Yahya Jammeh, whose tenure has been renewed with an overwhelming 72 per cent of the total votes cast, now has a fresh five-year mandate; he is undoubtedly delighted with the results of the November 24 elections.

Shortly after the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) declared him winner, Jammeh convened a victory party in the capital city, Banjul, where he promised thousands of his party supporters that he would undertake a rapid development programme. He then promised to throw a “victory party” in every region of the country, starting with the region that had the highest vote percentage for his party, and staged a three-day extravaganza party at his hometown, where money was spent lavishly while more than half of the country’s population continues to wallow in destitution.

Critics say the misappropriation of money on unnecessary parties could have been better utilised on the implementation of the projects he promised. It could also have been used to create more job opportunities, especially in a country teeming with unemployed youths.

Empty promises?

President Jammeh promised that his government will implement a new project every three months. He failed to reveal any particulars about these projects, including where the necessary funding would come from. It will be very interesting to see how these projects commence and how they are financed as Gambia’s debt burden continues to increase both domestically and internationally.

He also pledged to steer the country in the next five years to a rapid development process that will match or better those set in motion in the United Arab Emirates. Realistically, it is clear that these pledges will remain an unachievable dream come 2016.

The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper report of 2006, published by the National Planning Commission of the Gambia, says that 74 per cent of Gambians are below the national poverty level.

Poverty is on the increase since Yahya Jammeh took over the country through a coup d’état in 1994. The amount of people living below the poverty line has increased from 30 per cent in 1992 to 58 per cent in 2003. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) report of 2006, published by the National Planning Commission of the Gambia, says that 74 per cent of Gambians are below the national poverty level.

Although the president continues to shell out money randomly, the majority of Gambians are finding it very difficult to keep their heads above water as the prices of basic food commodities continue to go up, transport fares increase and electricity prices skyrocket. 

A one-man rule

Just less than a month after winning the election, Jammeh has also resorted to his usual strategy of sacking top officials. This week, the secretary general and head of the civil service, Ousman Jammeh, was sacked. The president – as always – failed to provide a motive for these new set of changes.

And while Ousman Jammeh will be replaced by the former head of the Ministry of Works Construction and Infrastructure (MOWCI), Dr Njogu Bah, the MOWCI will now fall under the jurisdiction of the president’s office. Currently, many ministerial positions are under the Office of the President, including Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Energy and Ministry of Agriculture after he sacked the previous ministers; a number of other government institutions are likewise under his domain.

The Gambia now gears up for the election of the National Assembly Members scheduled for March 2012. Having declared winners in all the constituencies in the country, Jammeh’s ruling party – Alliance for Patriot Reorientation and Construction (APRC) – is expected to win all the seats in the parliament. 

If this happens, many are fearful that more laws will be amended in favour of the incumbent regardless of the possible ramifications it could have on the people. Even now, only five of the 53 seats in parliament are held by the opposition. They can’t make any meaningful impact as the Parliamentarians of the ruling party continue to rubber-stamp almost every bill brought to the National Assembly by the government, while the president continues to appoint and fire speakers of the National Assembly at will.     

Unfair elections?

The sub-regional bloc, Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), boycotted this year’s presidential election on the grounds that the country does not have a political environment conducive for free, fair and transparent presidential elections. The sub-regional grouping said its fact-finding mission sent to the country prior to the election found “an intimidated electorate, cowed opposition and an unacceptable level of electronic media controlled by the ruling party”.

A few days before the polls, the Gambia parliamentarians in one of their sessions demanded the resignation of the president of ECOWAS Commission, James Victor Gbeho, whom they alleged of taking the decision to boycott the elections “unilaterally”.

However, other local and international observers of the election generally agreed that the polls were peaceful and technically sound, but not without fundamental irregularities.

In its report at the end of the election, the African Union noted that President Jammeh benefited from a “strong media bias and greater financial resources” than his rivals to secure a new five-year term in elections.

“Although a provision was made for equal access of all political parties and candidates to the public media, the actual coverage of the public media was strongly weighted in favour of the candidate of the ruling party”, the same observers said.

Before and throughout the campaign period, the portraits of the opposing candidates were hardly displayed in public. Very few people were seen wearing their T-shirts or displaying any of their party stuff. On the contrary, Yahya Jammeh’s portraits, pictures and other campaign stuff could be seen everywhere, even on public buildings and government vehicles.

Again, Beakanyang, a youth led community-based organisation that monitored the polls, reported that its observers saw a National Assembly member stationed at a polling station in one of the polling stations in the Upper River Region, directing people to places where they should vote. According to the country’s electoral code, no one is allowed to loiter around the polling stations at the time of voting.

Mr Famara Jawneh, secretary general and head of Beakayang’s observer team, also noted that though most polling stations closed on time, ballot boxes were late to be transported to counting centres.

In retrospect, it seems that ECOWAS’ statement may have grounds for justification

What the opposition says

The United Front, which got only 11 per cent of the total votes cast, was formed by a merger of four political parties for the sole purpose of unseating the incumbent. None of them accept nor reject the election results, but they say there is a need for lessons to be drawn from the results of the elections.  

The United Democratic Party ‘vehemently and unconditionally’ rejected the results of elections, calling it bogus, fraudulent and a capricious usurpation of the will of the people.

For one, the country should institute a constitutional reform to restore the second round of voting in presidential elections, which President Jammeh, through the National Assembly, eliminated by amending the country’s constitution. The new simple majority on which Gambian elections rely clearly favours his party.

According to Hamat Bah, the flag-bearer of the United Front, “Another fundamental lesson is that the 11 days allocated by the Electoral Commission as campaign period has grossly disadvantaged the opposition parties after being deprived of access to the media for a period of four years prior to the campaign period.”

Earlier, the United Democratic Party “vehemently and unconditionally” rejected the results of elections, calling it bogus, fraudulent and a capricious usurpation of the will of the people. Ousainou Darboe, the United Democratic Party’s flag-bearer, said that the party will take necessary action, but nothing has been done so far. They were the only party to issue a detailed statement, outlining evidences of election malpractices.

Some people said the Gambia is now at a crossroad between the past and the future. The past can never be restored, and the present cannot be sustained. The future is uncertain as the president vowed to continue ruling the country for “one billion years if Allah says so”.

But even though he has won the elections, the people might not continue to accept policies he continues to impose on them. Therefore, the future of the country will be influenced by people who are poor and face the prospect of five more years under the regime of Yahya Jammeh.

Lamin Jahateh is a Gambian journalist and the editor and publisher of Gambia News Online.

Follow him on Twitter: @LaminJahateh

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.