The Gambia has been dealt with a heavy hand in the arena of leadership. After a feckless, corrupt 30-year rule of President Jawara, under the patronage of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), a new euphoria was welcomed with much excitement following a coup d’état by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), under the leadership of Yaya Jammeh in 1994. The young 29-year-old Jammeh, gave the people hope for a much better live. The excitement and the long yearning for change compelled Gambians to celebrate the new breed of leadership. Four months after the 1994 coup, another group of soldiers plotted a counter coup but failed. They were captured and one killing led to another. The need to cover-up those killings necessitated the silencing of anyone that spoke against the ruling government. Despite widely held belief that Jawara’s government was corrupted and failed to lay a proper foundation for the country’s infrastructural and human development, his government was democratic, and freedom of speech and association abound.
However, a small poor West African country like the Gambia was easy to win over with much needed construction of roads, a new airport, more schools, health centers and a first national television station. The Jammeh government constantly reminded the citizenry of these new infrastructure ad nauseam and the demand for gratitude. Anyone dared to remind the people that it was a right to have infrastructural developments and should not be seen as a privilege, would be jailed, killed or will abruptly disappear. Gradually, the democracy enjoyed by Gambians was hijacked in a systematic way unnoticeable to the majority. With a high level of illiteracy, it was also easy to convince the people that the leader that ‘had done so much for Gambians’ needs to be repetitively glorified. Oppression starts to creep in, and the press could no longer hold Jammeh’s government accountable as they would be risking lives, censorship or exile. Beyond journalism, thousands of Gambians were victims of state sanctioned Human Rights abuses.
Consequently, these illiberal practices continued for 22 years until the long-divided opposition challenged by the younger generation—most of whom had studied from the very university established by the Jammeh government and the instigation and full support of Gambians living in the diaspora, suggested the formation of a coalition. A convention was setup and the opposition voted a flagbearer that emerged from the United Democratic Party (UDP) to lead the Coalition in the 2016 presidential elections. UDP was the Gambia’s biggest opposition party and has been in existence since 1996. Earlier in April of 2016 one of UDP members, the late Solo Sandeng had been detained and died in police custody. This was as a result of a protest he together with other members of UDP youth wing organized in the streets of Serrekunda demanding for electoral reforms. His dead forced the party Leader Lawyer Ousainou Darboe and some other party executives to come out and demand for the release of Solo Sandeng, under the slogan: “Dead or Alive”. They were also taken into police custody and charged with ‘unlawful assembly’. The courts presided over by Justice Dada, one of Jammeh’s missionary judges found them guilty and on July 20th, 2016 were sentenced to three years in prison. Many agreed that this fueled the anger of a population with Jammeh’s regime and contributed to the spark for the youth uprising and challenging the opposition parties to form the coalition and reclaim the country.
Adama Barrow, a real estate agent and Assistant Treasurer of the UDP emerged winner at the convention and was bound to lead the coalition. Barrow who was described as humble with a modest personality reluctantly got admitted to his role to take on the brutal dictator in the 2016 presidential election. At the time of the election, a lot of Gambians were hopeful and confident; however, a good many were skeptical about the viability of the coalition because they believed the incumbent would suspiciously win the elections AGAIN. Essentially, Gambians in the diaspora through a lot of funding campaigns, financed the ‘Coalition 2016’ campaign and also convinced friends and families back home to vote for change. As election day gets nearer, it became clear even to Jammeh that Gambians were up for change. December 2nd, 2016, results were announced and Adama Barrow was declared the winner.
The Gambian political landscape was upended—ushering in a wave of excitement and jubilation. There was a lot of goodwill from the masses, people vowed to show relentless support to the new government. Democracy was restored and so was press freedom. A ‘New Gambia’ has been born, and this new dispensation seemed hopeful. From an inept, corrupt 30-year rule to a 22-year dictatorial rule, Gambians felt the need to take part in the governance of their country. With the help of social media, Gambians all over the globe are informed about the developments in their country.
Comments and critics begin to fill up the Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds. Everyone had a thing or two to say about the new government. Who should be hired, what new laws should be prioritized and what institutions should be disbanded or retained? The political discourse took center stage on every thread and those that felt they fought more than others thought more government positions belonged to them whilst others believed that everyone fought in their own different capacity. It seems like every week—there is something new coming out of the Gambia’s political sphere, sparking a myriad of online debates. Eventually, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic missions were appointed. A lot of people thought the allocations of these appointments only favored the UDP whilst the UDP felt that it was deserving of them to get those appointments because their party sacrificed more than anyone and the president came from their party. That led to a formation of two camps: one camp seeing the shortfalls of the government and criticizes it and the others thought the government needed time to settle in and ignored all red flags sans reservation. Many questions ensued, some even broaching and questioning if the appointments were for national interest or to reward party sacrifices.
Thereupon, the newly minted president started to feel comfortable because he felt he had the support of his party members and thought he could get away with much. The banter continues as the president indicated in an interview that he was not sure if he would step down after the agreed three-year mandate given to him and his coalition partners. Online critics heard the news and, as expected, took on their keyboards to call out the president on betraying the coalition agreement. Again, UDP members supported by their party leader—Ousainou Darboe—reminded people of the five-year mandate powered by the Constitution of the Gambia, alienating the coalition agreement and vowed to take anyone to court for insisting on the president to step down after three years. President Barrow ‘grew wings’ as described by his critics and revealing that his plans for the Gambia could not be completed within a three-year mandate.
Gambians went back to the polls to vote for their parliamentary representatives. Out of 53 seats, the UDP swept off 31 seats. Leaving the remaining 22 seats distributed among the other political parties and independent candidates. President Barrow as president is mandated to nominate an additional five national assembly members, including the speaker and deputy speaker. Most of his nominations again favored his former party as three of the five were UDP members or sympathizers. None of the coalition parties got nomination into the Assembly. Again, the two camps took on to social media to debate the landslide of the National Assembly (NA) Elections and the President’s nominations. The feud lasted for weeks with critics calling out the irrationality of the nominations and the UDP supporters continued to defend the president’s nominations. A couple of months later, these newly sworn in NA members were all gifted with a brand-new vehicle each from the office of the president. The President claimed the vehicles were donated by an unknown philanthropist who wished to stay anonymous. As expected, the argument continued demanding for the donor’s name and reasons for the donation. Hoping that the National Assembly responsible for checking the executive would also question the sources of the vehicle but shockingly, most of the members quietly accepted the gifts.
To test the ‘newly found democracy’ and protest what they said was culture of increasing corruption and impunity in the country, Human Right Activists took to the streets in June 2018 to demand for better living, health and education conditions. Their freedom to assemble was limited by the security forces. The Police Intervention Unit sent armed riot police and allocated a time frame for the protest. The activists were also shunned by the UDP supporters and labelled as ‘Disgruntled Entitled Youths’ and further indicated that they ought to be grateful for living in a Gambia with zero killings.
Many people believed that, these actions, among other things, emboldened the president to engage in a war of words with his critics; asking where they were when he single handedly defeated the dictator? Questioning their interest in seeing a more developed Gambia with better living conditions for her people. He continues to take part in throwing jabs at his critics and those he felt were threats to his leadership. Toward the end of June 2018, Barrow embarked on a massive cabinet reshuffle. He manifested the powers as the Executive President of The Gambia. He fired most of his coalition partners and replaced them with former Yaya Jammeh enablers. And goes further to redundant the powers of anyone standing in the way of his quest to entrench himself to the Presidency. The members of his party whom he had initially appointed to the following cabinet positions; Vice President, Minister of Trade and Agriculture were equally later relieved off of their positions following a UDP convention that elected Lawyer Darboe as party Secretary General.
Looking at where the political dynamics of The Gambia is, a lot of people are blaming the UDP for blindly supporting Barrow despite all his reckless decisions and ignoring all signs of ineptitude. They were allegedly ready to go to war with anyone that challenged the government and constantly massaging Barrows ego in order to stay in his good graces. A lot of UDP’s opponents similarly accused Lawyer Darboe for selfishly defending the most argued five-year mandate, to help him and his party better situated to take on the mantle of Presidency come 2021. Today, it seems the UDP have lost the influence they have had in the executive with their party executives being relieved off of their positions after purportedly stumbling the country in a deep hole. They have now decided to strategize and restructure their party and position in the political environment with continuous reminders of their existence. Their online members have once again joined their former counterparts in the struggle to critically criticize the same Barrow government that they sided with only three months ago.Can we conclude that the UDP that gave us the humble Barrow in 2016 also upgraded him to the ‘political animal’ that we now see? What the political field holds for Barrow, UDP and other political parties is difficult to predict now but it is obvious that 2021 will be another interesting year in Gambia’s political evolution.
Media and Communication Studies Student,
University of Washington, USA.