Gambia: The seat-warmer, the forever runner-up, and the return of Jammeh
Five years ago, Barrow historically defeated Jammeh at the ballot box. Now he’s allying with the former dictator’s party as he bids for a second term.
For almost the entirety of Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule in The Gambia, Ousainou Darboe was a thorn in the president’s side. The opposition leader and founder of the United Democratic Party (UDP) was a rare critical voice and contested the presidency in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011.
It was only when Darboe was detained in April 2016 for participating in street protests that a new figure was selected to lead the UDP-led coalition into elections that December. Adama Barrow’s sole previous political experience had consisted of losing a parliamentary election nine years earlier, but he managed to defeat Jammeh at the ballot box.
To the citizens of the tiny West African state, Barrow thus personified a hopeful new era. To his political partners, he was a transitional leader, warming the seat for the immensely popular Darboe.
In the five years since Barrow took office, The Gambia has seen major political shifts. Three vice-presidents have come and gone, while a constitutional reform process has collapsed as individuals secured their grip on power. Barrow has fallen out with Darboe and exited the UDP.
This means that in the presidential election on 4 December, the incumbent will seek re-election under the banner of his freshly minted National People’s Party (NPP). Darboe, who served as a vice-president and foreign minister under Barrow, will run as the UDP candidate once again.
The election is predicted to be a close-run affair between the president and his former benefactor. The opposition UDP, which holds a parliamentary majority and has a solid grassroots representation, is confident it can engineer a second upset in six years. Despite concerns about his age, the 73-year-old Darboe is hoping to emulate fellow serial contenders like Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo, and Guinea’s Alpha Condé in securing power after several attempts.
Barrow’s first term in office has had mixed results. He has established the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) to foster national healing in the aftermath of the human rights violations under Jammeh. But its findings are yet to be submitted and Essa Faal, the commission’s lead prosecutor, has resigned to run for the presidency too. This could leave the commission’s recommendations open to criticism.
Barrow’s promised security sector reforms are also still a work in progress. Throughout Jammeh’s regime, security personnel were arbitrarily sacked, replaced or promoted based on his whims or the ethnicity of the officers involved. Loyalty was prioritised over experience and competence. In the interregnum, the current administration has resorted to using troops deployed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 2017. According to the BTI Transformation Index’s 2020 Gambia Country Report, there have been isolated instances of both ECOWAS peacekeepers and national security forces being heavy-handed towards citizens.
For the most part, President Barrow has maintained trust in the country’s institutions. As the BTI report comments, “the democratic institutions of the Gambia are widely considered legitimate, even by those individuals or groups who might disagree with specific decisions or policies.” However, these trends were thrown into question when Barrow’s NPP announced a pact with the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), Jammeh’s old party. This has sparked speculation that the former ruling party could get a role in the next government and an amnesty deal for its exiled leader. Human rights groups in The Gambia have warned of a possible return of Jammeh, who stands accused of human rights violations and killing political opponents.
Hamid Adiamoh, editor-in-Chief of NewDay newspaper, warns of what this could mean for Gambian politics. “Sometimes people think that they have control over an agreement and then you shake hands with the devil and then eventually you start to realise that the devil has more power than you thought he did,” he says.
Government insiders, however, doubt the likelihood of a presidential pardon. “ [Jammeh is] alleged to have killed quite a number of West Africans and American citizens, Gambian Americans,” says a source at the presidency on condition of anonymity. “Jammeh’s going into exile five years ago was an international thing. I think it’s highly improbable that President Barrow will have as much power to grant Yahya Jammeh amnesty or to stop his prosecution.”
From all indications, the polls will be free and fair, but ethnic allegiances will continue to play a role in deciding the winners. Darboe is Mandinka, an ethnicity which accounts for a third of the population. Barrow is Fula and has been accused of serving the interests of his kinsmen. Jammeh is Jola and once said he would put the Mandinkas “where even a fly can’t see them”, a statement believed to have robbed him of their support in 2016. Barrow’s marriage of convenience with the APRC, seen as the political home of the Jolas, seems to be a strategy to boost his numbers.
Five years ago, becoming president was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Barrow was a transitional candidate, explains the presidential source. “But of course, this is politics. This is power. The president believes that it is essential for him to take the next step beyond just being the transitional leader.”
For the citizens of The Gambia, the polls could spell a new lease of life for a disgraced dictator. Or it could mark a happily-ever-after story for another West African gerontocrat and the country’s first smooth political transition since its 1965 independence from the British.