THE ongoing political crisis in The Gambia should be of concern to an average Nigerian for so many reasons. Nigeria as a nation deployed enormous resources in the installation of the present democratic government in the country. Again, there is a large number of Nigerian immigrants in the country. In actual fact, retail and wholesale businesses in automobile parts, textiles, pharmaceuticals etc in The Gambia are dominated by Nigerians and even in the higher education sector, out of the two universities in the country, one (Legacy, a private university) is owned by a Nigerian. Besides, like Nigeria, The Gambia is also an English-speaking country in West Africa sub-region with so many other ties that bind the two countries together. If Africa and in particular sub-regional interests are the central orbit of Nigeria’s foreign policy thrust, the so called giant of Africa can not shy away from the leadership responsibility the position bestowed on the most populous country in the continent.
Before we zero in on the crux of the discourse, let’s quickly roll out some information about The Gambia. Relatively one of the smallest countries in Africa in terms of population and land mass, Gambia with about two million people is barely the size of Alimosho, one of the 20 Local Government Areas in Lagos State. Despite the small size, Gambia is a multi linguistic country of about six ethnic groups with major languages being Mandinka, Wollof and Fula. The country situated on the Atlantic coast and surrounded or better put enveloped by the neighbouring country Senegal, has 10,689 sq kilometres of land with capital city as Banjul while the largest city of about 200,000 residents is Serekunda.
It may be interesting to note that as small as Gambia and its economy is, her currency, Dalasi is stronger than Nigeria’s Naira as one Gambia Dalasi is equal to seven Naira.(GMD 1 = N7).
The Gambia has its shared history of colonialism like so many other countries in Africa; initially a Portuguese territory but later taken over by the British imperialists. It got its independence from the foreign rule in 1965 while the country became a presidential republic in 1970.
So many waters have passed under its bridge since then as the country has experienced one political upheavals or the other. Recall that Dauda Jawara, one of the country’s nationalists and avowed pan African leaders was the first elected president and remained in the position till 1994 before he was forcefully booted out of power by the military juntas.
Jawara’s tenures were characterized by foiled coups and one political unrest or the other. Notable among these was the failed coup of 1981 that shook the government to its very roots. In 1981, The Gambia entered into Senegambia Confederation with Senegal but the amorphous structure collapsed in 1994 with the overthrow of Dauda Jawara in the coup led by Yaya Jammeh who initially ruled the country for two years through the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC). Jammeh transmuted from a military dictator to a civilian leader in 1996 having contested the year presidential election and got elected as the president, the position he held till 2017 through subtle and brutal manipulations and manoeuvring of electoral processes. Against popular agitations, Jammeh amended the constitution to uphold his illegality and undemocratic tendencies.
His tenacious hold on power was not without several failed coups; pronounced among these were those of 2000, 2006 and 2014. Among the policy somersaults and inconsistencies displayed by Jammeh was the pulling out of The Gambia from the Commonwealth of Nations without broad consultations with stakeholders.
Describing the leadership of Jammeh, the Human Rights Watch report of 2015 viewed the citizenry in the country as “ a population living in a climate of fear in which government, justice and accountability for abuses is utterly beyond reach”. After 22 years in office, Yaya Jammeh on the platform of his party, Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), contested the 2016 presidential election in The Gambia. Seven opposition parties fed up with the sit tight right syndrome of Jammeh coalesced into a major opposition United Democratic Party branded as ‘Coalition 2016’ and against all odds Adama Barrow, an Estate Agent and relatively a political novice was chosen by the coalition on October 30 to stand against Jammeh in the presidential election. The primary resolve of these strange bedfellows in the coalition was to wrestle power from Jammeh, a perceived stubborn power monger. In a bid to consolidate the coalition, it was allegedly agreed among the members of the coalition group that if Adama Barrow won, he should rule for three years out of the five-year tenure and then relinquish power to another member of the opposition, a position not known to constitution of the country. It was further claimed that Barrow consented to the arrangement and signed the documented agreement.
The shoddy arrangement later became a ghost currently hunting the so-called coalition government.
In 2016, Adama Barrow defeated the incumbent President Jammeh at polls. He was accordingly declared winner by the Independent Electoral Commission of The Gambia. Jammeh initially accepted the results but few days later, he reversed the decision, claiming that the error admitted by the Electoral Commission in the summation of the results was a calculated attempt to force him out of power against the popular wishes of his people. The Electoral Commission did actually commit an error of addition which it admitted and painstakingly corrected thereafter. The new corrected figures only reduced the winning margin of Barrow from 46 to 43.29% which constitutionally still qualified him to be declared winner. Capitalising on the error of the Electoral Commission, Jammeh called for a fresh election and filed a petition with the Supreme Court. He and his party, the AFPRC, argued that the election should be declared null and void. All efforts by ECOWAS to peacefully mediate and break the political impasse was to no avail. In the face of the political storm, the Electoral Commission remained steadfast and stood by the results declared. It should be noted also that prior to the build up to 2016 presidential campaigns, The Gambia did not have any history of ethnic conflict: the main ethnic groups of Jola, Mandinka and Fula lived side by side and had been inter-marrying for generations.
Reports had it that the 2016 campaign of Jammeh was mostly characterised by hate speeches which led many of the Mandinka, the largest ethnic group, to abandon AFPRC . These inflammatory statements also pitched the Mandinka against the Jola, his ethnic group.
Worthy of note was Jammeh government’s disregard for the rule of law and his penchant for incarceration and torturing of opponents. Reports say he even had his family members murdered for being antagonistic to his political cause. Few hours to the December 2016 presidential election, internet facilities were cut off while telephone services in the country were blocked, rendering the people incommunicado while members of the opposition parties were put under tight security surveillance. Two prominent opponents of the ruling party died in detention. The aforementioned acrimonious relationship between the two major ethnic groups in The Gambia and Jammeh’s threa not to relinquish power to the winner of the elections created palpable fears and tensions across and beyond the shores of The Gambia. As the January 19 the inauguration date drew nearer, Barrow, now operating from the neighbouring Senegal, was preparing to take over the mantle of leadership of the country while Jammeh insisted on not handling over.
Nigeria chose not to keep mute and allow the country to degenerate into a state of anarchy. President Muhammadu Buhari sent a Nigerian warship close to the country as Nigeria led ECOWAS troops moved across the border on January 21, 2017 and secured the capital. Sensing humiliation, forceful and disgraceful exit from office, Jammeh bowed to reason and agreed to step down. He thereafter proceeded on self exile. Expectedly, Barrow moved in and was sworn in as the elected president of the country under the shield and protection of the ECOWAS troops and the country’s Navy. Jammeh solicited with the ECOWAS leaders for the sub regional troops nicknamed ECOMIG – ECOWAS Mission in Gambia, to hold back in the country for at least six months. When Jammeh fled The Gambia in 2017, his successor, Adama Barrow, promised reconciliation after 22 years of state repression. But barely two years into Barrow’s administration, the new government agenda was being threatened by political and ethnic divisions – the seeds sown by Jammeh had now become germinated and full blown. Recall that few months in office, Barrow set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate Jammeh’s financial misdeeds. The action that was greeted with mixed feelings among the Gambians. As a follow up to the foregoing, the Ministry of Justice began prosecution of six members of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) accused of murdering the opposition candidate in 2016. In addition, the country’s unicameral legislature known as National Assembly voted to establish Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) ; the opposing views were quick to point out that Gambia was never in situation of war or apartheid like Sierra Leone or South Africa, hence, there was never a need for the Commission. All these actions were viewed as being vindictive and targeted at members of ethnic and political groups of the ousted President Jammeh.
The former President could not have been said to be without avowed followers in the country and his hitherto nosedive popularity when he was defeated out of office has now soared again at face of serious economic downturns in Gambia.
The section of the people seems comparing the economic indexes under the former leader with that of Barrow and some were already calling for return of Jammeh to the seat of power.
The knotty issue shaking the incumbent administration is the alleged three years agreement claimed to have been signed by Barrow for relinquishing power despite the mandate of 5 years provided by the Constitution.
The current political crisis started as a child’s play in October 2019 when a handful of members of the Coalition 2016 issued a press conference calling for stepping out of Barrow from the seat of power the moment he clocked 3 years in office. By December the cloudy agitations had become more thickened with series of mass protests and rallies calling for honouring of the gentle man agreement reached by the coalition members with Barrow.
Here comes the clash of morality with the legality; Barrow is morally bound to honour the behind the scene agreement while the electoral law permits 5 years tenure, all things being equal.
Barrow was not to take it easy, he stated making frantic efforts to repel the agitations as law enforcement officers were often deployed to suppress the protests.
While the members of the coalition intensified their calls for Barrow’s relinquishing power, the supporters and allies of the former President Jammeh were equally repositioning for political onslaught against the incumbent President. It became a case of enemies within aligning with enemies outside which had really heated up the polity in the last two months. Barrow, in order to neutralise the claims of the Coalition 2016 with regard to the mandate being enjoyed by him, publicly announced to the entire nation in January the launch of his own political party called National People’s Party(NPP). The move was to free him from the coalition that helped him to win the presidency in 2016. He claimed he was never an accidental president and that he was more than prepared to bring necessary change in Gambia. As the dribbling and intrigues continued in Gambia between the opposition elements and the incumbent President, the small English speaking country may be plunged into political quagmire if the situation is not properly managed. There is urgent need to allow national interests prevailed over parochial selfishness. If there is any attempt to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere in the tiny country that derives the bulk of its revenue from tourism, it is the downtrodden and poor masses in the country that will bear the brunt of the crisis.The ruling elite in the country must be statesmanlike.