Lessons for Africa

The sudden U-turn of Yahya Jammeh after initially conceding electoral defeat.

Jubilation and ululation gripped Banjul after an election held in a tiny Western African nation called The Gambia on 1 December 2016 led to the defeat of a long time military dictator. Women, men, the elderly, the young, teemed the streets of Banjul defacing the portraits of Jammeh, some horning car bells, with some waving placards with messages of hope, “the dictator had surely gone!”, one of the placards read.

The people of The Gambia had woken up to see a blue sun raising in a yellow sky- it was so surreal to most Gambians, as surreal as it was to most Libyans when Colonial Muammar Gheddafi’s regime fell after decades of despotism.

The announcing of the December 1st presidential election results, which showed that Yahya Jammeh was defeated, caught many in the Gambia and beyond by surprise. Most expected to hear the usual “a resounding victory for His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh”. Speaking to the BBC’s Focus on Africa radio programme in 2011, Jammeh is on record to have said “I will rule for a billion years”, meaning that he will rule until his death and with the system he had created.

So effective was his intimidation and violence machinery that many saw no hope in fighting him through the ballot box.  A situation which prompted many to take the long and dangerous journey to Europe through the Sahara Desert whose unforgiving baking heat has seen many Gambians failing to make it to the Mediterranean Sea. Those who managed to reach the Mediterranean Sea, took the journey to Europe in unseaworthy boats and many usually gave the sharks of the Mediterranean Sea an easy meal.  The fall of Jammeh led those who made it to Europe into ecstatic of jubilation. Most contemplated the idea of coming back because there is now hope in the Gambia. Adama Barrow, a real estate developer, has done the impossible, he became the new president of The Gambia. But was the former president, who had seen Allah giving him the mandate to rule Gambia for billion years, ready to accept the results of this election?

Born in 1965, Jammeh ascended to the throne at the age of 29 after a successful military coup d’état in 1994. His ascend to power meant hope for many Gambians. Like most of the leaders who come into power through coup des etas in Africa, Jerry Rawlings in Ghana and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso being very good examples, Jammeh was quick to change the constitution of The Gambia and adopted a more democratic constitution which had term limits.

The Gambia former president Jammeh

Years of power eventually led Jammeh to see himself as the prophet of Allah who was sent to lead the people of The Gambia to perpetuity. After some time in office, Jammeh changed the constitution and scrapped the term limits which were codified into the law when he took power. Usually seen wearing a white Muslim outfit, always holding the Koran, a stick and a prayer beads, Jammeh saw himself as the Grand Ayatollah of Gambia whose mandate was to lead the people of Gambia under the tutelage of Allah and also to cure barrenness among women and HIV/AIDS. Opposition in The Gambia was weakened and crushed through brutal means. Media freedom was not guaranteed and most journalists were either killed or sent to the infamous prisons in Gambia. Under these circumstances, a few dared not to speak against Jammeh and being an opposition party member meant risking a long jail term or even death.

2016 proved an easy election year for Jammeh, and a lot of people felt it was a mere waste of time, energy and resources to go and vote in the hope of toppling Jammeh. Arguably, Adama Barrow himself never thought he will pull a stunner and defeat Jammeh and become the president elect of the Gambia.

The initial conceding of defeat by Jahmmeh was so unthinkable and dreamlike to the people of not only The Gambia but Africa at large.  Most came to realise that dictators are not invincible after all and elections in Africa actually work. They had every reason to see the defeat of the tyrannical Jammeh as the triumph of democracy in Africa. Africa is well known of electoral violence, electoral rigging and, above all, the inertia of leaders to concede defeat and changing goal posts when their terms of office are coming to an end. From Zimbabwe, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Gabon, Uganda, among other numerous African countries, the truism of the old adage that ‘power corrupts’ seems to be authenticated.

After having initially conceding defeat, Jammeh decided to declare the election of 1 December 2016 null and void hence the need for a fresh and transparent election presided over by Allah.  Despite the efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to mediate and urge Jammeh to concede defeat, Jammeh is adamant and sees the efforts by ECOWAS as driven by neo-colonialism. To Jammeh, the proposition of sending troops into the country to try and force him out of office in order to pave way for the president elect Adama Barrow is a declaration of war. Jammeh is prepared against the odds and to fight the aggressors and fulfil the will of Allah to rule The Gambia for a billion years.

All of this leaves us with a series of questions, that only time will answer. Will the stepping down of John Drammani Mehama of Ghana inspire Jammeh to step down? Will there be any The Gambia without Jammeh? What does Jammeh refusal to step down and hand over the reins of power mean for Africa? Does power really corrupt? How does it corrupt in Africa? Is the use of military force the only solution of deposing Africa’s long serving billion years’ rulers as done against Idi Amin in the 20th century and Muammar Gadhafi in the 21st century?

Lessons for Africa
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Mehari Fisseha

Mehari has graduated in Law and European Studies (Hons) from University of Limerick – Ireland; holds a Master degree in Peacebuilding from Coventry University – UK and a Master degree in Criminal Justice, Governance and Police science from Bochum University, Germany. He worked for refugee community in Ireland. He also worked for CARDOZO School of Law – Human Rights and Genocide clinic. Mehari is a passionate advocate on Human Rights and Development issues. He is also interested in the reform of the United Nations.
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