Gambians will shortly go to the polls to elect a new president in the country’s ninth direct presidential election, of which only one has seen an opposition candidate defeat the incumbent. That was in December 2016 when Adama Barrow defeated Yahya Jammeh to end the latter’s 22 years of brutal rule.
Before that, Dawda Jawara had won three successive elections between 1982 and 1992 and Jammeh five between 1996 and 2011.
Even after being defeated at the polls Jammeh tried to cling to power by initially rejecting the outcome. But Barrow was eventually sworn in as president in January 2017.
The 2021 election is expected to be peaceful and, unlike 2016, losing candidates are likely to accept the outcome.
A recent poll showed that 89% of Gambians expect there is more than a 50% chance that the 2021 election will be peaceful.
Barrow contested the 2016 election as an independent representing a seven-party coalition. This time he is the candidate of the National People’s Party which he established in December 2019.
The National People’s Party is one of 18 political parties that the Independent Electoral Commission has registered. Many are very small and have no representation in the National Assembly. In the most recent National Assembly election in April 2017, the United Democratic Party won 31 out of 53 seats. Three parties, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, the Gambia Democratic Congress and the National Reconciliation Party, each won five. The People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism won four seats and the People’s Progressive Party, two. One independent candidate was elected.
Barrow’s surprising victory in 2016 was widely welcomed both in The Gambia and externally for restoring democracy and human rights. Jammeh’s repeated human rights violations included extra-judicial executions, ‘disappearances’, detentions without trial and extensive media harassment.
Human rights has improved enormously under Barrow, but he has nevertheless faced strong criticism for:
- going back on his 2016 promise to serve for only three years rather than for a full five year term;
- retaining the Economic Community of West African States Military contingent, which has been responsible for Gambian security since 2017. A recent poll showed that Gambians overwhelmingly want the regional troops out;
- effectively preventing the 2020 draft Constitution being passed by the National Assembly;
- signing an electoral pact recently between the National People’s Party and the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, the party formed by Yahya Jammeh in 1996 and which he led throughout his presidency.
Many Gambians feared the pact might make an eventual Jammeh return more likely. It might also undermine the work of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission that was established in 2018 to investigate human rights violations, consider reparations for the victims of abuses and promote reconciliation.
In spite of these issues, Barrow remains the favourite to win the poll. He may, however, not achieve an absolute majority of the votes cast.
The main contenders
Although 21 presidential candidates were nominated, only six were given the all clear by the Independent Electoral Commission.
Three contenders, all of whom have previously contested presidential elections, stand out.
They are Ousainou Darboe, Mamma Kandeh and Halifa Sallah.
Darboe, the United Democratic Party leader since 1996, finished second behind Jammeh in each election between 1996 and 2011. He could not stand in 2016 having recently been imprisoned for participating in an illegal demonstration.
He was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in February 2017 and served as Barrow’s vice-president between June 2018 and March 2019, before being sacked.
The United Democratic Party remains the largest party in the National Assembly, even though eight of its 31 MPs were expelled in November 2019 and now sit as independents.
Darboe’s courageous opposition to Jammeh over two decades counts in his favour. However, at 73, he is the oldest candidate. The youthful profile of the Gambian electorate (58% are aged between 18 and 35) may cost him votes.
Darboe’s best electoral performance was in 1996. He may well achieve a higher share than his 17% in 2011, but he is unlikely to defeat Barrow.
The leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress, Kandeh is a former Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction National Assembly member, who finished third behind Barrow and Jammeh in 2016. He had previously refused to join the opposition coalition.
This time he will stand in alliance with a breakaway faction of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction. Jammeh supports the alliance with Kandeh, seeing this as a way to engineer his return to The Gambia, and has recently spoken by telephone at his campaign rallies.
Kandeh’s links with Jammeh will bring him votes in the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction heartland of the Fonis. But it may well cost him support in other areas where voters fear his victory would lead to Jammeh’s return. His chances of victory remain slim.
Sallah was a founding member of the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism in 1986. He is currently National Assembly member for Serrekunda and was the party’s presidential candidate in 2006.
The party is seen as radical and often criticised by both Jawara and Jammeh.
Sallah commands respect because of his long political career. However, the party he leads has never enjoyed much support outside the urban areas and he is unlikely to achieve more than the 6% of the vote he gained in 2006.
The two remaining candidates – apart from Barrow – are contesting their first presidential election. Abdoulie E. Jammeh, a former director general of the Gambia Civil Aviation Authority, heads the National Unity Party.
Essa M. Faal, the only independent candidate, is an international lawyer who until recently was the chief prosecutor of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.
Neither is expected to win many votes.
Thanks to the electoral commission’s vigorous promotion of voter registration the size of the electorate has increased from 886,578 in 2016 to 962,157 in 2021. Women account for 57% of registered voters.
Only Gambians registered in the country are eligible to vote.
What to expect
A recent opinion poll showed that 41% of those surveyed in November intended to vote for Barrow, compared with 22% for Darboe, 6% for Kandeh and 5% for Sallah.
Importantly, however, 23% remained undecided or declined to state their voting intention. Doubtless some in this group will not vote. But if a substantial proportion support Darboe, he could yet upset the odds and at last become president.
If, as anticipated, Barrow wins again, he will probably continue to lead the country in a similar manner and direction. He will doubtless change his cabinet, but may retain the leaders of some other parties, including Hamat Bah of the National Reconciliation Party.
One immediate challenge for a new Barrow government would be how to respond to the final report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, which was submitted to him on 25 November.
Barrow will certainly face pressure to prosecute some of the major violators of human rights under Jammeh.
Fears that a Barrow victory would lead to the former president returning to The Gambia have receded following Jammeh’s denunciation of the pact between his party and the ruling party.
If Darboe loses once again, his hopes of ever becoming president will surely be over. If he should win against the odds, there may be relatively few changes in government policy, although all talks of Jammeh ever returning to The Gambia will surely be over.