Democracy Watch

Democracy beaten in Gambia

Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh

The popular view that democracy was restored in Gambia after former President Yahya Jammeh was forced to go into exile is not true, and actually represents a setback for democracy in Africa.

In our first edition of the year we predicted that, “...there is little doubt that any progress in entrenching democracy in Africa will continue to face an uphill struggle and it remains under threat.”

We also asserted: “It is obvious that the biggest threat to democracy in Africa is the continent’s leaders. It is a challenge, but the people of Africa should stand up and demand better quality leaders and hold those in power to account.”

At the time of writing, the above was partially prompted by the shameful attempts of President Yahya Jammeh – for 22 years the dictator of the impoverished little West African nation of Gambia – to cling to power after losing the December 2016 presidential election.


It is probably safe to assume that Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994, has scant regard for democracy and democratic institutions.

It was therefore quite a surprise for many when Jammeh accepted defeat and conceded the presidency to his victorious opponent, Adama Barrow.

Then, Jammeh’s about-turn on the election outcome not only shattered initial euphoria, but also the feeling of gratification that his initial acceptance of election was a further manifestation that democracy in Africa is maturing.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you are the incumbent and lose a free and fair election in a mature democracy, there is only one option: vacate your office on the designated date and hand over the keys to the victor. And accept that any other option would be unconstitutional and illegal. Any reservations you might have, if they are legitimate, should be looked at according to rules existing for such an eventuality.


It is flabbergasting that there are commentators holding views that:

  • Jammeh “should be given credit for his courage to leave office;” and
  • argue, “...seize Jammeh’s concession of defeat as an opportunity to negotiate an exit strategy, ensuring peaceful transfer of power.” 

There is no reason or justification to “negotiate exit strategies” for the losers who, after free and fair democratic elections, turn around and spurn the decision of the voters.

What on earth could justify that dictators like Jammeh be granted a “dignified exit”?

In fact, in Jammeh’s case there are even aggravating circumstances. He tried his best to make the playing field uneven for the opposition – using intimidation tactics and the state-owned media houses and other resources to his advantage during the election campaign. 

Astoundingly, leading politicians including António Guterres, the new Secretary General of the UN and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the outgoing head of the AU Commission, are congratulatory that the process in Gambia is back on track after an interlude that should never have happened in the first place!

No deterrent

The view with the most popular support seems to favour the belief that the departure of Jammeh is a warning to Africa’s remaining tyrants and dictators of what could be in store for them.

There is, however, little, if any, indication that they share this view, and why should they? 

For decades, the despots and dictators of Africa, Jammeh included, got away with murder and oppression. They rigged elections, altered constitutions, ignored election defeats – and nobody called them to account.

There is little evidence that this is set to change.

For 22 years Jammeh plundered his dirt-poor country, and ruled by fear and with growing eccentricity. In recent years he turned Gambia into an autocratic self-styled Islamic Republic; said he could cure HIV/Aids with herbal leaves (sounds familiar?) and threatened to “slit the throats” of homosexuals.

Yet, he was allowed to stay in power without any real condemnation from neither the international community nor the African Union (AU) – the biggest betrayal of all.

Finally, and to top it all, Jammeh was not only allowed to leave Gambia untouched for Equatorial Guinea where he had been offered refuge as “political exile” by another despot, but he was also allowed to keep the loot he had stolen while in power.

Jammeh was allowed to leave with $11 million taken from the state’s coffers and with his fleet of luxury cars.

According to a The New York Times report, Jammeh , “...rolled towards his flight into exile in his trademark Rolls Royce….with its custom headrests stitched with the honorific His Excellency Sheikh Professor AL haji Dr Yahiya AJJ Jammeh.”

Jammeh is also fortunate that he was indemnified of any accountability for more than two decades of crimes against the people of Gambia.

Jammeh, for all his transgressions, should be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC), the same court he denounced not so long ago.

It is, however, unlikely that Jammeh will appear before the ICC, which is a pity as he is a criminal masquerading as a politician who has once again skipped justice. 

by Garth Cilliers

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