Wherever you go in the Gambia, you will find people in the streets chattering about the presidential election surrounded by an air of excitement. Gambians call this chatter ‘gisgis’ and it is all about politics these days. On 4 December 2021, Gambians went to the polls. The first elections without the former 22 year-long president Yahya Jammeh contesting passed peacefully. His successor Adama Barrow, elected in 2016 quite surprisingly, was confirmed in power. With that, the Gambia passed a litmus test: having decided for continuity in times of change, Gambians send a strong signal of democratic practice to the region.
On 1 December 2016, Gambia’s then President Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled the small country in West Africa for 22 years was unexpectedly defeated. It was the first time in the country’s history to have a change of government through democratic means. A political impasse ensued but by January 21, 2017, Jammeh had agreed to step down and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea. For Gambians inside and outside the country, the high sense of euphoria and the spontaneous celebrations that greeted Gambians following Jammeh’s defeat can be likened to that of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Apartheid rule in South Africa in 1994. The Gambia’s 2016 presidential elections remain unprecedented in Africa’s election history. Not only because it ended the era of one of Africa’s longest-standing dictator in the 21st century, but because it has also seen the fall of a man who promised to rule Gambia for a ‘billion years’. His successor, Adama Barrow, came to power amid jubilations and high expectations. This year’s elections were seen as a test of Barrow’s achievements in implementing his ambitions as articulated in the National Development Plan.
The 2021 presidential elections featured five opposition parties and the incumbent. With a population of 2.417 million (90% Muslims, 8% Christians, 2% other beliefs) people as of 2020, a bit less than a million registered voters decided on the fate of the nation in December, 4 election. To win the election, a candidate only needs a simple majority of the marbles cast. The voting system in the Gambia is unique as voting is generally done not by casting a ballot paper but by casting a glass marble in one of the containers that are painted in the respective candidate’s color. Like that, voting becomes not only accessible and inclusive for not literate Gambians that make about half of the population but transparency is ensured, too, when counting is done on the spot with a tailor-made marble board.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), established by the 1997 Constitution, is the institution responsible for conducting elections, including the registration of voting cards. According to Section 26 of Gambia’s 1977 Constitution, the right of every Gambian who is 18 and above to take part in the conduct of public affairs, including registering for a voting card to vote in periodic and competitive elections is ultimately guaranteed. IEC set a total number of 67 registration centers in all the seven administrative regions in the Gambia, from 29th May to 11th July 2021. The registration process was marred with debates on the eligibility of potential voters, occasionally erupting into violence.
In a next step, IEC held nomination of all bona fide parties and independent candidates between 30th October, 2021 and 5th November, 2021. From 21 aspirants, IEC only declared nomination papers complete for six candidates. Two days later the campaign officially started throughout the country. However, in Gambian politics, campaigns and publicly canvassing for votes usually start long before the official period for campaign. While being overall peaceful and highly frequented by citizens, there were few minor incidences of violence, mainly between the supporters of the incumbent’s party newly founded National People’s Party (NPP) and the long-established opposition party United Democratic Party (UDP).
Besides the usual rallies, numerous civil society initiatives were proof of consolidating democratic practices, for instance the CSO Coalition on Elections. Further, Fact Check initiatives were established to counter misinformation, predominantly circulated in social media. The app Marble was designed to make transparent results coming in live. Radio and TV stations broadcasted non-stop and so did virtual debates on social platforms, such as Twitter (#GambiaDecides2021). National observers were present at polling stations. In sum, the electoral process was followed closely by Gambians.
The results: High margin for Barrow, unprecedented voter turn-out
Six candidates contested for the polls. However, the election was touted to be a contest between the incumbent president Adama Barrow and his political godfather Ousainou Darboe of the UDP that made Adama Barrow the flagbearer of the coalition in 2016 when Darboe himself was in jail. The other four candidates include Halifa Sallah of PDOIS (People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism), Mama Kandeh of GDC (Gambian Democratic Congress) who allied with former President Yahya Jammeh’s faction of the APRC (Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction), Abdoulie Jammeh, former Administrator with civil aviation, and Essa Mbye Faal as the only Independent candidate and former lead counsel of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).
Despite occasional incidents of pre-electoral tensions, the polling day went peacefully. Voting started from 8am until 5pm, except in a few situations where due to large turnout voting went on for extra hours and into the night. The process went peacefully and all the various demographic groups came out to vote. Priority was given to the elderly, pregnant and lactating women as well as people with disabilities. Except for few incidences and claims that some of the marbles were not fitting well, there was little complain about the voting process and the manner in which it was conducted was hailed by local and international observers.
After voting, the votes are counted on the spot and at each polling station. The counting on the spot not only enables parties to get the result same time with the IEC but also ensures the credibility of the polls. President Barrow was reelected with a clear mandate receiving 53% of the votes followed by his political godfather, Darboe at about 28% of the votes. Kandeh received 12% while the rest was shared between Halifa, Faal and Jammeh who cumulative scored less than 10%.
Assessing and contesting the results – A win for the Gambian people
One surprising feature of this elections is the high number of people that turned out to vote. From close to one million voters that registered to cast their ballots, 89.3% turned out, making this election unprecedently popular, especially among the youth. The individual reasons to go out and vote are surely diverse, yet it shows that #GambiaParticipates in the decision of the country’s future president and that the results stand on solid ground.
It was very difficult to predict the outcome of the elections prior to polling day. For many analysts the election was a close call between father and son. However, when the results started to trickle in, it became clear that the polls, instead of being a referendum on Barrow who has reneged on some of his promises, were clearly a vote against the major opposition party UDP and its candidate. The margin was unimaginable and has been the primary reason why UDP leaders rejected the results. If there is one lesson that Gambian political leaders should learn, it is the fact that the majority of Gambians are silent voters and will vote for the candidate of their choice.
After Jammeh’s autocratic rule and his non-acceptance of election observers in the past, this election was the most observed election in Gambian history. Five former heads of state led teams of observers from ECOWAS, AU, Commonwealth, EISA and West Africa Forum of Elders who were mostly deployed to ensure peaceful polls and a transparent process. The European Union also sent an election observation mission. In addition to the many international observers, more than 1,000 domestic observers were deployed.
Despite all observer groups crediting Gambia’s election for its transparent, free and fair nature, the opposition, which was seriously damaged by the high margin for Adama Barrow, has claimed foul pay without presenting any evidence. While the IEC was still announcing the results, the “unholy alliance” which is comprised of Darboe, Kandeh and Faal (Faal has since congratulated Barrow following public backlash) met at Darboes place to reject the results. The only reason presented was the fact that the margins do not make sense. The rejection of results led to UDP supporters protesting and being teargassed by the police marking the first post-electoral violence. UDP has called for calm and announced that they will follow the legal route seeking remedy from the courts. While this is a decision that is welcomed by all, many still wonder what evidence UDP can present, given the transparent nature of Gambian polls.
The way forward: Continuity for change – paradoxical but promising?
The elections in 2016 were meant to bring change to the Gambian people. The surprising defeat of Yahya Jammeh and Adama Barrow’s promise to start a comprehensive reform process stimulated hope. Over the past five years, however, political turmoil impeded change and the winds of change faded. There was a promising draft constitution that was rejected. The work of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission started to reconcile society, yet, the report has not been made public and the prosecution of perpetrators remains unclear. Reforming the security sector takes time and the ongoing presence of regional ECOWAS forces spurs debate at times.
Despite growing disappointment over the reform process, people voted for continuity in the presidential election 2021 and grant President Barrow some more to time to move his reform agenda forward. It seems, the President has well taken this signal as he just announced to make a new constitution a priority for his second term, including a term limit for presidents. This surely makes other ECOWAS leaders lucid as a debate on a regional two-term limit was tabled at the ECOWAS Summit on December, 12, 2021.
Eventually, the winner of the election is not only President Adama Barrow, but the Gambians who invigorated and shaped the democratic electoral process. Amidst all recent despairing news from Mali, Togo, and Guinea for democracy in West Africa, Gambians delivered on the democratic journey and send strong and positive signals to the entire region.