The Gambia keeps dream of deepening democracy in Africa alive

Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate his victory in Banjul, the Gambia. Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon

The year ends with a gust of transformational winds blowing over the Gambia and Angola, raising hopes that Africa’s democracy project is not as dead as it is feared to be.

The shock electoral defeat of the Gambia’s strongman President Yahya Jammeh by Adama Barrow, a little known former security guard, is particularly significant.

After coming to power through a military coup in 1994, Jammeh went on to become one of the continent’s most authoritarian and oppressive leaders.

Not long ago, he proclaimed that he would rule the Gambia for a “billion years” if God willed it. But, in his concession message, the devout Muslim accepted his fate.

I take this opportunity to congratulate Mr Adama for his victory. It’s a clear victory … As a true Muslim who believes in the almighty Allah I will never question Allah’s decision.

Shortly before the Gambia’s elections one of Africa’s longest serving leaders, Eduardo Dos Santos (73) of Angola, confirmed that he would not be seeking re-election in 2017.

Jammeh’s acceptance of defeat at the ballot and Dos Santos’s voluntary relinquishing of power come at the end of a testing year for democracy in Africa.

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila is showing no sign of preparing to leave office after two terms and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza sitting tight and consolidating his power after extending his rule amid fierce opposition and deadly violence.

Next door in Rwanda, Paul Kagame has also secured extension of his term. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe (92), another long-serving African leader, remains in power. But he too has hinted that he might consider retirement.

Seen against this backdrop, a peaceful transition in the Gambia would be particularly significant. Taken together with Dos Santos and Mugabe’s ultimate departure – if they indeed do happen – these portend hope that Africa’s democratic renewal is still alive.

From repression to concession

After a 22-year rule during which he won four consecutive five year terms through manipulation, forced disappearance , torture, the jailing and exiling of opponents and other strong arm tactics, the eccentric strongman’s defeat was as unexpected as was the manner of his quick and gracious concession.

The defeat is all the more stunning because it was to a rather unknown political novice. Adama’s first foray into politics saw him headline an unusually united seven opposition parties.

Adama Barrow. Reuters/ Thierry Gouegnon

Some of their members, including the leader of the United Democratic Party, were jailed at the start of the campaign. While this united ticket ran on a platform of addressing youth unemployment, the economy, agricultural rejuvenation and human rights , the general expectation was that the outcome would go the way of Jammeh – as it did the previous four times.

The new president’s priorities will include fixing the Gambia’s limping economy. This will require reinvigorating agriculture and tourism, which took a knock from falling commodity prices and the recent Ebola epidemic. Youth unemployment is one of the highest in the world at 38%. Adama will also need to reverse Jammeh’s notoriously poor human rights record and restore civil liberties.

It is not yet clear why the ruthless authoritarian leader has so easily agreed to the dictates of democratic leadership change, since all his ability to manipulate his stay in power is still intact.

There is no sign that Jammeh has lost the ability to hold onto power forcefully if he so wishes. And, his concession is by no means irreversible.

What is certain, however, is that his electoral loss and expected departure from office will bring down the curtain on one of the most oppressive and eccentric presidencies in Africa.

Winds of change in Angola

Further down south, the ruling MPLA party has confirmed that strongman Dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979, will not seek re-election in 2017. Joao Lourenco, the defence minister and vice president of the MPLA, will stand instead.

Dos Santos’ stay in office has been largely characterised by political malaise and gross mismanagement of Angola’s oil wealth.

Corruption on a grand scale has benefited mostly his family, political allies and the elite class. There has been only marginal improvement for the general populace.

Angola’s severe crisis has been compounded by the dramatic fall in the price of oil, which at 95% of its exports is the bedrock of its economy.

This has stoked widespread frustration given the lack of basic services, medicine, food and high levels of inflation. It is not apparent if these dire straits have had a direct influence on Dos Santos’ decision to step down as Angola has experienced economic downturns before. But what is known is that there is little internal MPLA challenge to his authority.

The big question is, will this departure herald the end of the MPLA’s hold on power – it has been at the helm since independence from Portugal in 1975 – and so spell a complete beginning for the country as in the Gambia? It is often argued that it is relatively easier to compete against a successor to a strongman than an incumbent strongman.

This is hardly surprising. Given Africa’s highly personalised politics, characterised by a strong network of patronage around the incumbent leader, the opposing candidate is at a disadvantage. He or she faces the near impossible challenge of competing against a personality cult cultivated over decades and an entrenched network of political rent-seeking.

Chequered history

Africa’s leadership alternation has a very chequered history. Presidencies have changed hands through the ballot box in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and now the Gambia. But authoritarianism continues to persist in places like the Congo Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Burundi.

As such, the latest developments in the Gambia and Angola are most welcome. The case of the Gambia shows what powerless and oppressed masses can do to bring about change and shape their own destinies. Jammeh and Dos Santos may well have read the signs that Africans are growing increasingly tired of strongmen politics and imperial presidencies.

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