HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsGambia, a test case for African democracy

Gambia, a test case for African democracy

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Yahya Jammeh, the President of The Gambia, has proven to be a major test case for the African Union and continental regional blocs in their pursuit for democracy.

Develop me with Tapiwa Gomo

When we thought Zimbabwe held that record for holding elections and disregarding the results, Jammeh has just pulled a fast one.

He lost elections, accepted defeat and promised to hand over power peacefully, before making a U-turn to question the credibility of elections he presided over, after which he refused to go.

Jammeh has just squandered a golden opportunity to become the first long-serving President to demonstrate that dictators can convert and allow democracy to prevail without being forced out of power.

That would have earned him respect and become an icon for democracy, particularly considering that he seized power through a coup in 1994.

But he threw that through the window, plunging his country into an unnecessary crisis.

This might not come as a surprise to those who know him. Jammeh has always been a colourful and dramatic leader and in this case, he did not disappoint, as he was magnanimous in his concession speech.

He promised to pass on the baton to president-elect, Adama Barrow, peacefully.

For a moment, he fooled the world that all was set for a transition of power, marking a new political dispensation in Gambia.

However, his change of mind on the outcome of elections has defied all tenets of electoral democracy by suggesting that elections are not an effective way for people to express their will, but trashed the purpose of such democracy.

Unlike in countries such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and others, where elections were muddled in some confusion, creating a seemingly justifiable process for peace talks, Gambia’s situation is a direct defiance of elections and those who believe in them.

Needless financial spending on negotiations by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has already begun, with the AU issuing a toothless warning of serious consequences and that it will not recognise Jammeh as the President of Gambia.

Jammeh is not looking to be recognised by the AU or Ecowas. His priority is to stay in power in Gambia and the rest is for another day.

He has options for that as he can draw lessons from Kenya and Zimbabwe that it is not how right one is, but how relevant a stakeholder he becomes in the peace talks and what narrative he introduces to the dynamics.

He knows that in a country called Zimbabwe, election results were withheld for a whole month and nothing happened to those in power.

The moment the negotiation becomes peace talks, then he has a chance to score a power-sharing deal, which he can use to thwart Barrow, who won the recent presidential vote, out of power.

That is how the game has been played recently in Africa.

Alongside a re-run of elections, he is pushing for a power-sharing deal as an alternative because he is aware that re-runs and power-sharing models in Africa have always favoured sitting presidents.

They saved Mwai Kibaki of Kenya in 2007, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe in 2008 and Salva Kiir of South Sudan in 2014. So why can they not save Jammeh?

Once that happens, it will have summed up what some analysts have been pointing out over the decades that there is no democracy in Africa, but just elections.

Secondly, that leadership in Africa is decided by leaders, whether internal or external, but not by the people.

And thirdly, that the holding of elections is a game played to appease western institutions and not necessarily to listen to the wishes of the people.

Ultimately, African leadership is not for the people.

Perhaps Jammeh is very much aware of these weaknesses and is exercising his right to challenge what he chose to think were flawed elections even though he presided over the process.

He is also aware that once the page on negotiations begins, then he can pull the strings from there.

Jammeh is also aware that the AU is an over-stretched institution, with limited resources to initiate and sustain any military action against him.

He can always hide from western intervention by suggesting the “African solutions for African problems” mantra.

The longer the peace talks take, his chances of staying in power increase.

And as the process gets protracted and tiring, the more he gains powers to direct the process.

Whatever the case, Gambia has become an addition to the list of problem countries, which the AU and its regional blocs are failing to address.

Perhaps, it is time we started thinking of a new model that replaces the current ones.

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa

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