Gambians expect to head to the polls in about 200 days to elect a president for a new 5-year residency at the State House in Banjul. By the last count, there are about 19 registered political parties and about 4 independent candidates who may be competing for the coveted job.
However, despite the crowded field, the electoral campaign and popular expectations so far have crystallized two major contenders: incumbent president, Adama Barrow of the National People’s Party (NPP) and former vice president Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP).
Both men belonged to the same party five years ago when Adama Barrow emerged as a transitional coalition candidate at a time when the entire country was quite hard-pressed in the need to dislodge a dictator who had increasingly tightened the noose around the nation’s neck. Ousainou Darboe and most of the
UDP’s top hierarchy was at the Mile 2 Prisons at the time, locked up for a peaceful protest that should have been legal. The coalition formed in their absence settled for Barrow, who was a little-known Darboe protégé, to square up against Yahya Jammeh in that year’s presidential polls. With most of the country united behind him and their hopes saddled on his Davidic shoulders, Barrow pulled off a historic victory, stunning Jammeh and rekindling the country’s hope for a new dawn. With Yahya Jammeh defeated and now in exile, however; the alliances and allegiances of 2016 have been tested and shattered; internal rivalries have come to the fore with intra- and inter-party disputes, exposing the coalition as a hastily-patched amalgam of the patriotic desperation that created it in the first instance. Former allies have since regrouped into opposing camps, and daggers were drawn, protégé now
prepares to face mentor in an election battle that will perhaps be The Gambia’s most fiercely fought ever and which outcome is very likely to be influenced in many ways by the population’s greater focus on a plethora of pressing social and economic demands. Despite a reputation for stability, the power transition in The Gambia has never really been smooth. Yahya Jammeh overthrew Sir Dawda Jawara in a military coup after 30 years of sit-tight rule, only to be removed himself with the threat of force by sub-regional
powers after losing the polls, acknowledging defeat and then bizarrely backtracking on ceding power.
“From Euphoria to Dysphoria”
The elation that welcomed Adama Barrow’s ascension to power has certainly fizzled out, and while his government’s respect for rights and freedoms, among others, are evidence that The Gambia is no longer under Jammeh’s chokehold; the everyday pressing issues of a slow-cooking economy, delayed reforms, rising insecurity and rampant corruption are constant fodder for those who accuse the president of being incapable of the rigorous demands of his exalted position.
The president, who had no prior experience of public service and who has admitted to “learning on the job” also continues to draw considerable ire for his perceived cozying up with some of Yahya Jammeh’s cronies and for what they consider a betrayal of the ‘New Gambia’ dream, underpinned by a new
constitution and heralding a future completely divorced from the brutal legacy of the former president.
For 22 years, The Gambian state had become an extension of Yahya Jammeh’s persona to the extent that even individual progress in the country depended on clientelistic relations with him. So, when Jammeh went into exile in January 2017, he left behind a virtually bankrupt economy and a massively
distressed society with state apparatuses riddled with abuse and extensive corruption.
Predictably, Jammeh’s removal, celebrated on the outside, exposed a series of structural but silent chaos in the Gambia’s governance architecture and the challenges facing the new leadership were thus massive even without the additional economic distress occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic and traditional burdens of an unsustainable debt burden, high unemployment and an inefficient public
There is therefore little arguing that any government succeeding Jammeh would have had it extremely tough and even less doubts that Adama Barrow, who was to serve only as a transitional leader, did not come fully prepared for the challenges.
Barrow’s initial strategy was to reward coalition partners while building the core of his government around his original political family; the UDP. That seemed to work for the first two years when the UDP apparently held significant sway.
However, once the clash of interests between Barrow’s desire for a second term and Darboe’s own presidential ambitions became irredeemable, a cascade of events was set in motion that culminated into a final parting of ways after Darboe was sacked as vice president in March 2019. Determined to stay on as The Gambia’s number one citizen, President Barrow has since established his own political party, which launched with a sizable crowd that offered proof of the president’s political evolution and doggedness.
With the strong winds of the incumbency in its sails, the NPP is already a household name in the country and the rate of its growth, especially in provincial Gambia, is becoming a concern to those in opposing camps.
The UDP on the other hand, is also a dominant political party with a majority in the National Assembly (31 out of 58 seats) and control of seven out of eight area councils across the country. As the most significant opposition party during the Jammeh era, UDP has a well established national reach and remains the choice for those who swear by the man they regard as The Gambia’s own Nelson Mandela.
“The New Gambia is stillborn”
Many Gambians are still aghast at the implementation failures that have resulted in no significant progress after the very expensive efforts of the Commission of Inquiry into the Financial Activities of Public Bodies, Enterprises and Offices (Janneh Commission) and the Constitutional Review Commission
(CRC) new Draft Constitution, which was rejected by the National Assembly. Many now believe the “New Gambia” ideal is at best stillborn as major reform efforts that were expected to herald them, seem
to have been jettisoned by the government. President Adama Barrow has often pointed to macroeconomic improvements particularly in terms of GDP growth, a more expansive field of basic human freedoms and improved relations with bilateral partners yielding significant pledges, as examples of its achievements.
However, insecurity affecting individuals and communities across the country seems to be on a fast rise, as is the general perception of corruption in official circles. There is also palpable rest less ness around coastal communities with grievances over what many regard as shady allocation of natural resources especially land.
To be fair to President Adama Barrow, most of these challenges are legacy issues of Yahya Jammeh’s misrule. But while the pervading environment of fear under Jammeh did not allow the expression of pent – up anger, accumulated over two decades; the Barrow government has also not been working at any commendable speed to address these issues with any real sense of urgency and gravitas, leading to a growing credibility gap in the people’s perception of their government.
The White Horse or the Hand Shake?
Given the aforegoing prognosis, and the glaring list of what the Barrow government isn’t doing or isn’t doing right, it may be quite tempting to believe The Gambia’s incumbent president is doomed to lose the forthcoming polls to his formidable rival. But not so fast! One, a very careful analysis of the political calculations and strategies being employed by Barrow’s NPP truly does show the president has evolved
rather quickly from the Darboe protégé of 2016 into a shrewd player whose every vote-earning move is well detailed.
The NPP seem to have realised and accepted that urban voters will be difficult to convince and has therefore shifted most of its energy and attention to the provinces, where most people’s
expectations and needs still inhabit the base tier of Maslow’s Pyramid. There has also been some massive investment in the roads up-country by Barrow’s government and also in Banjul, KMC and West Coast Region. While those new roads in the provinces may not yield much in immediate economic utility, they are likely to lead the way to what NPP stalwarts call “massive grassroots votes” for the president.
Gambians up-country do not necessarily seem to feel the same angst at the jettisoning o f the draft
constitution like their urban counterparts do; and the pace of life there does not tend to lead the people to as much frustration in the current pace of governance. There is also a strong cultural peculiarity, especially with the provincial population that it may be pointless, maybe even sinful, to oppose leaders already “chosen by Allah”.
Of course, Adama Barrow’s people are harping on this as much as they can. While it is widely believed that the provincial votes win Gambian polls however, the statistics tend to point in the opposite direction. For example, both President Barrow and ex-president Jammeh got over half of all their 2016 votes from the KMC and WCR alone. So, the NPP may as well be barking up the wrong tree.
The Elephant in the room
The UDP easily has the size and spread to win the election in December. However, there a few often-underrated factors that may derail the “Yellow train”. While there is general peaceful coexistence among the various ethnic groups in the country, there nevertheless seem to be the perception and fear, which the UDP has never really succeeded in assuaging, that the party derives allegiance mainly from the ethnic Mandinka group and that a UDP government may not be fully representative o f the political aspirations of the other ethnic groups in the country.
In fact, for the sake of this article, NewDay asked 27 people who their choice would be in the December polls without alerting them to the Barrow vs Darboe debate. It was startling that most respondents with non Mandinka surnames said they won’t be voting for the UDP leader.
The December polls will also require a simple majority since it is being held under the 1997 Constitution and Lawyer Darboe, whose critics think has absolutist tendencies that make for someone whose leadership could be extremely partisan and divisive, is not very well known to be adept at making the kind of deals and compromises that engender political coalitions; which are often a surer means of dislodging incumbent governments.
The question then remains whether the UDP has what it takes on its own to win the December polls or whether it is simply underestimating Adama Barrow and the NPP?
So, who wins in December? Only December will tell!