In 2011, Yahya Jammeh spoke to BBC’s Focus on Africa and dropped the bombshell that he would lead for one billion years if Allah said so. Fast forward to 2016, and it seems Allah did not say so as Jammeh shockingly lost to Adama Barrow. After two decades of autocratic leadership, The Gambia has decided to cut short the billion year mandate with 45.5 % of the electorate voting for the President-Elect while 36.7% voted for Jammeh. Might this be a signal of the fall of the continent’s strongmen?
The rise and fall of Jammeh
At 29, Jammeh came to power in the little island nation of The Gambia after a coup. This was in 1994 and the country was to know no other leader until 2016. Jammeh was an eccentric leader whose beliefs ranged from strange to “creepy”. In 2007, he claimed he could cure Aids with a herbal concoction and infertility among women, and warned in 2008 that he would decapitate homosexuals, calling them vermin which would be dealt with in the same manner as malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
In Jammeh’s world, it was difficult to separate myth from fact as he stultified press freedom. One of the symbols of the struggle for press freedom was The Point Newspaper editor Deyda Hydara who was gunned down in 2004. Amid such media repression, the truth of the Babili Mansa (conqueror of rivers)’s regime was difficult to get it is widely accepted that he did not respect human rights to the extent the world would have expected yet his tiny country still attracted many tourists from Europe. After criticism from Europe, Jammeh made sure his country left the Commonwealth. The Guardian says many Gambians live overseas due to this repressive political climate and now that Jammeh has lost, they will be thinking about coming back home. The big question however is, Will Jammeh yield? As it stands, the incumbent President has conceded to Barrow and in a phone call to the President-Elect said, “I wish you all the best. The country will be in your hands in January. You are assured of my guidance. You have to work with me. You are the elected President of The Gambia. I have no ill will and I wish you all the best.”
The President-Elect also said he was confident Jammeh would “not hang on” as, “It’s the people who have spoken.”
The new era
It seems it is the year of property moguls with Donald Trump winning the presidency in the USA and now Adama Barrow in The Gambia. Barrow has never held public office just like Trump and this plays right into the anti-establishment politics on the global stage. Experience no longer counts for much especially in The Gambia where Jammeh, the outgoing leader lost regardless of having 20 years of executive experience. In the run-up to the elections, Barrow criticized the lack of term limits in the country and the isolation that Jammeh seemed to so keenly pursue. Barrow said he would take the country back to the Commonwealth and the In the International CriminaL Court. Amnesty International’s Sabrina Mahtani has also called upon the incoming government to release political prisoners and account for those who have disappeared. She also said, “We’ve seen how important the rights of freedom of information and freedom of assembly are over the last few weeks – it’s important that the new government reforms repressive laws.”
Barrow’s government will have its work cut out for it. Matters of human rights will be part of the top priorities considering the mess Jammeh leaves the country in. The people of the Gambia are expectant and there is certainly going to be a paradigm shift. To capture the expectations of the people, a Gambian publication, Foroyaa says, “The people want liberty and prosperity. They want to get out of the economic woes they are now facing and businesses want an enabling environment to function effectively. The people want an end to detention without trial and disappearance without trace, the arbitrary dismissal of civil servants and other public servants, self exile, interference with the judiciary and other independent and oversight public institutions and so on…”
Barrow and his team will have the tough job of regaining the people’s confidence in their government. Whatever the case may be, The Gambia has shown other strongmen that they are only strong because the people give them the political power to sustain their positions.