Tensions Rising in The Gambia

Ballot Box

On 1st December 2016, The Gambia will go to the polls to select its president for the next 5 years against a backdrop of increasing political tension. The Gambian regime has long faced criticism from human rights groups for its treatment of opposition politicians and supporters, and restrictions on freedom of speech. However, since a failed coup attempt in December 2014 and opposition protests earlier this year, it appears that the regime has become increasingly repressive and it seems likely that the election, and its aftermath, could serve as an outlet for the rising tension in the country, potentially leading to political violence.

The incumbent – Yahya Jammeh – is looking to secure his fifth straight term as president after seizing power through a military coup in 1994. His two main opponents are Adama Barrow of the United Democratic Party (UDP), who is leading a coalition of seven opposition parties, and Mama Kandeh of The Gambia Democratic Congress, who was previously a member of the National Assembly for the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). According to Kandeh, the GDC refused to join the opposition coalition because of a “lack of transparency and democracy in the selection of [the] coalition flag-bearer”. Nevertheless, despite this criticism, it appears that Barrow has the full support of the other parties in the coalition and is likely to be the main contender to Jammeh. Barrow recently stated that “we have set our differences aside because of [the] people’s interest, so that we can effect a peaceful change of government”.

Although such a coalition puts the opposition in a stronger position than in previous elections, Jammeh is still undoubtedly the favourite to win next month’s election. Jammeh and his party – the APRC – dominate Gambia’s political environment. In 2011, Jammeh won the presidential election with 71.54 percent of the vote and in 2012, the APRC won 43 out of 48 seats in the National Assembly. Although the leader of the UDP – Ousainou Darboe – described the 2011 election as “bogus, fraudulent and preposterous” and his party, along with a number of other opposition parties, boycotted the National Assembly elections in 2012, observer missions from the African Union (AU), Commonwealth and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) found the presidential election to be “credible”. However, these organisations noted that there were problems in the lead up to the campaign and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) refused to send election observers as it said that its investigations had found “an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation”.

This observation of Gambia’s political environment has been echoed by many human rights groups, especially ahead of this year’s election. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have criticised Jammeh’s regime for its increasingly repressive approach to opposition supporters and independent journalists. It appears that since the attempted coup in 2014, there has been an increase in arbitrary arrests and disappearances and it has been alleged that many of those who have been arrested have been tortured in custody. For example, the independent radio station Teranga FM was closed down on a number of occasions following the coup attempt and its managing director – Alhagie Ceesay – was detained and charged with sedition in July 2015. Many human rights groups and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have called for his release.

Moreover, it seems that such repressive tactics were adopted more readily by the authorities during, and in the wake of, opposition protests in April 2016. On 16th April, the UDP organised a peaceful protest calling for electoral reform and freedom of the press. Due to Gambia’s tightly controlled political environment, illustrated by the enforcement of the Public Order Act to prevent opposition gatherings, such protests have been very rare occurrences. The authorities responded to the protest by reportedly firing live ammunition at the demonstrators and arresting over 50 of them, many of whom were allegedly tortured. Significantly, UDP youth leader – Ebrima Solo Sandeng – was among those arrested and subsequently died in police custody. The UDP reacted to this by organising another protest calling for an investigation into Sandeng’s death. Similarly, during the second protest, a large number of opposition activists were arrested including the UDP’s leader – Darboe –who was later sentenced to three years imprisonment.

As a result of this crackdown on opposition activities, the Jammeh regime has not only been criticised by human rights groups but also the US State Department and the UN. However, this international pressure does not seem to have affected Jammeh, who responded to calls for an investigation into Sandeng’s death by saying that it is “common” for people to die in detention and that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Amnesty International can “go to hell” for asking for an investigation.

In addition to this crackdown on opposition protestors, the lead up to this year’s election has seen the arrest of a number of independent journalists and opposition supporters. Following the arrests of three journalists in early November, Human Rights Watch stated that this “could have a chilling effect on the media’s ability to fairly cover the election”. Although it seems that journalists are being specifically targeted ahead of the election, it is important to note that Jammeh’s apparent disregard for the freedom of the press is not new. In 2011, he stated that “journalists are less than 1% of the population and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1% of the population to destroy 99% of the population, you are in the wrong place”. The most prominent journalist of the three arrested in November was the Director-General of Gambia’s State TV and radio broadcaster – Momodou Sabally. Although Sabally was viewed as a supporter of Jammeh, opposition activists have alleged that he was arrested because he broadcasted an opposition candidate’s nomination instead of news regarding an agricultural initiative led by the First Lady Zineb Jammeh.

Aside from this increasingly repressive political environment, the Jammeh regime has also adopted a more aggressive rhetoric with regards to the opposition. Many senior members of the regime have issued threats to opposition supporters who may want to protest against the election results, which are likely to be disputed. Although the military is meant to be independent, even the Chief of Defence Staff – Lt. Gen. Ousman Bargie – warned in October 2016 that there will be “no compromise” with anyone who seeks to destabilize the country around the election. This sentiment was echoed by the Interior Minister – Ousman Sonko – who stated that “demonstrations of any kind will not be compromised here. If anyone does it, that person would regret it”. Jammeh reportedly went a step further, stating that “this time around, no police will arrest and charge you. The army would be deployed to shoot and kill anyone in the streets demonstrating”.

Furthermore, with regards to Jammeh, it appears that he has chosen to target the Mandinka ethnic group in particular. Although the Mandinka is the largest ethnic group in The Gambia (42 percent of the population), he has reportedly stated that “this is not a Mandinka country” and that “there will be no Mandinka government in the Gambia”. Moreover, Jammeh accused the Mandinka of being behind the protests in April and reportedly said that “if you don’t behave well, I will deal with you” and even apparently said he would “kill you [the Mandinka] like ants”. Although ethnic violence has not been a problem in Gambia in the past, Freedom House noted that “ethnic harmony eroded” following the 1994 coup and such rhetoric opens the possibility of politicised ethnic violence surrounding this year’s election. The UN’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide – Adama Dieng – has condemned the statements made by Jammeh, which he has described as “vitriolic rhetoric”. He has stated that such comments are “irresponsible and extremely dangerous” and can “serve to incite violence against communities, based solely on their identity”.

It is highly likely that Jammeh will secure a fifth term as president of The Gambia on 1st December. However, given the repressive political environment in the country and question marks over the electoral process, it is also highly likely that the opposition will dispute the results. Although this has been rather muted in the past, the protests earlier this year indicated that the opposition are more willing to directly challenge Jammeh’s rule through public demonstrations. This has therefore increased the potential of opposition demonstrations in the aftermath of the election. If such demonstrations take place, it is likely that they will be focused in opposition strongholds in the West Coast Region and Kanifing Municipality, and in the capital – Banjul. However, in light of the response to protests earlier this year and the increasingly aggressive rhetoric of the regime, a heavy crackdown on any such protests should be expected, increasing the likelihood of political violence. Moreover, given Jammeh’s statements concerning the Mandinka, there is potential for political violence between the regime and opposition to morph into ethnic violence, where the Mandinka ethnic group is particularly targeted.

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