Election Special: Gambia

Could this republic morph into a monarchy after presidential elections on November 24?

This little country used to be a safe haven, respected for its tranquilty and civility. No more.

While Dawda Jarawa presided over The Gambia – that narrow, long country aside a great West African river which near-divides Senegal into two – the nation carved a reputation for calm, democracy and pluralism. While the dominant Muslim Mandinka outnumbered compatriots, their tolerance enabled Christian Jola and a plethora of other animist and Muslim ethnic groups to live cheek-by-jowl in relative harmony. 

It was a place which attracted people from across ECOWAS Africa who came to benefit from the thriving tourist industry. Eritreans, Lebanese, Europeans and North Americans chose this country as home.

A bloodless coup in 1994 deposed Jarawa and brought Yahya Jammeh, a 29-year old lieutenant, to power. He doffed the military uniform after a while to get elected as President in criticised circumstances and has since flouted international condemnation in calling for homosexuals to be killed, hounding journalists into submission (in what had been a nation proud with a free press), proclaiming to have discovered a herbal cure for AIDS, and various other nonesenses. The internet buzzed with an increasing volume of noisy outrage. Yet still this government pursued its unethical, illiberal programme.

According to the BBC, Jammeh had intended to hold a vote in September to decide on the creation of a monarchy. That didn't occur, but it's bound to be still on the cards. Considerable resentment exists inside the country towards this plan. 

The last time such a ridiculous scenario occurred in Africa was when Jean-Bedel Bokassa, a tyrant famed for allegedly cannibalising opponents, proclaimed himself Emperor of Central Africa. Let's hope Jammeh is prevented from following in Bokassa's footsteps, and that the Gambian can revert eventually to its prior civilised state.

The British have little influence in their former colony. The Americans used to hold sway, not least because the airstrip at Yumdum airport was artifically extended to accommodate NASA flights, but that arrangement elapsed in 2001. Poor little Gambia, who will help you now? 

Gambia News from gambianow.com reports Jammeh proclaimed in July that “Elections will not make me to lose power nor will military coups make me to lose grip of power. It is only the Almighty Allah, who made it possible for me to come to power in 1994 in a bloodless coup, who can make this possible. So anybody who thinks that the opposition are going to win the forthcoming elections is day dreaming,” Jammeh told thousands of cheering people. Gambia News continued, "Jammeh, who will be seeking a fourth term of office in the 24th November polls, has vowed not to engage in any election campaigning, promising that the elections would be free and fair."

Fat chance. The opposition is fragmented. And with partisan policies being pursued by Jammeh, that's unfortunate. "From now on, my government will only inject development to those areas that support me" Gambia News reported the President as stating. Unfortunately, this type of government is not uncommon in many developing countries.

When in Gambia myself, I noticed how difficult the creation of a cohesive opposition would be. Not merely due to tribal loyalties and inter-ethinic distrust, but also because each individual holds individualistic and unwavering viewpoints. Equally, though, the place is generally peace-loving and people are resigned to the power of authority. Life is tough for most, so keeping a low profile is preferred to stirring up dissent.

This is a country with strong homophobic tendencies, genuine awe of marabouts, fear of juju magic, rampant poverty, few resources, enormous families, rapid population growth and high unemployment. Just the sort of place where revolution might be discussed. Yet it is not. 

The economic situation is deteriorating, however, as a government deficit is set to rise. Jammeh has said he'll raise civil service salaries over the coming two years. Patronage is an effective control mechanism. 

The Gambia has 1.8 million people living alongside the river in an area of 11,295 sq km (about the size of Jamaica or Qatar). Peanuts or groundnuts, rice and millet are the principal crops.  Agriculture employs 75% of those in work and accounts for 29% of the economy. It is very dependent on its relationship with India, which buys 40% of all exports. No other country comes close. Services, mainly tourist-related, together with remittances from expatriates, account for the bulk of remaining activity and over half of all GDP is generated from these sectors.

An intellectual media is silenced by an overbearing State, and the people eek out a living as best they can. Tourism provides financial fluid to ease the pain. And disruption would cut off that money supply, so publicly Gambians keep schtum.

And democracy must wait. But will an aspiring king?

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