Why West Africa’s response to Gambia’s elections is vital

President Yahya Jammeh’s rejection of the election results will test the region’s response to democratic challenges. Although a small player in the region, Banjul is the home of the African Union commission; so it’s response to Jammeh’s claims of foul play will act as a barometer for tolerance of leaders in the region who are unwilling to concede defeat.

Last night I was writing an article about how West African states lead by example, compared to their Eastern relatives, in the transition of power following elections. Senegal, Nigeria and now Ghana, all have shining track records for peaceful transitions of power.

Mid-paragraph I was interrupted by the buzz of a Whatsapp message from a friend in Gambia who, for the past week, has been taunting me and offering to teach our East African leaders a lesson in democracy. By comparison to West Africa (notorious for coup d’états in the decades following independence,  seems to have fairly well nailed the electoral process) East Africa’s recent political history has been marred with messy and frequently violent attempts to transfer power: Burundi, Uganda DRC and Kenya have all experienced significant violence and intimidation around their elections in recent years.

Despite West Africa’s relatively better track record, I was one of the many who were pleasantly surprised to learn of Jammeh’s decision to concede power. Until, that is, I read this message on my phone screen: “I drove home from work and the streets were deserted after the announcement that The President is rejecting the elections”. It seems that the contest is not yet over.

The uneasy atmosphere that my friend spoke of in Banjul shows that even Gambians are unsure of what to expect in response this news. At this stage it seems unlikely that the major blocs- the Economic Coalition of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU)- will respond favorably, with the AU already labeling Jammeh’s rejection null and void.

The reaction of these institutions will be key in determining whether Jammeh is to continue leading the country without facing sanctions and peacekeeping forces (both the AU and ECOWAS have military resources at their disposal) and he would need to gain the backing of at least these two institutions.

Based on past actions, we can expect resistance to Jammeh’s move from ECOWAS. Throughout the Sierra Leone conflict, for example, it represented one of the few peacekeeping forces to continuously maintain a presence in the country- it is not an organisation that shies away from either involving itself with its members internal affairs or from taking direct action to correct them.

The AU is likely to take a more hands-off approach however even this traditionally lenient bloc has been more forthcoming in flexing its muscles against the will of leaders seeking to outstay their welcome. Last year the AU intervened in Burundi despite the fact the Nkuruziza technically had the right to remain in power. The Union’s threat to send in peacekeepers sent a warning message to the Burundian president and likely curbed post-election violence.

In addition to this, the African Commission is based in Gambia’s capital, Banjul, so how the institution reacts to Jammeh’s actions will carry added symbolism. Further, the AU would be faced with logistical difficulties if the country were to experience unrest.

So what led to the vote which would have toppled Jammeh’s 22-year reign? Simply put failure to recognise that the dynamics of this election would be different. Typically, there are two main contenders in Gambia’s elections: the incumbent’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) and the United Democratic Party (UDP). APRC typically draw support from the country’s second-majority Fula and Jola ethnic groups, and have enjoyed many years of comfortable majority in elections. The UDP courts smaller ethnic groups and despite not having won outright, normally secure a significant minority of the vote.

However, this year several factors have coincided to lead to Jammeh’s defeat. Early on in the race, it became evident that Jammeh had lost a significant proportion of the Christian vote and even moderate Muslim supporters due to his decision to officially rename the country “The Islamic Republic of Gambia” in 2015.

Gambia is a Muslim-majority country with a significant Christian minority who comprise around 8% of the riverside nation’s population. However, despite the conservative outlook of its leader, Gambian society traditionally upholds a relatively liberal brand of Islam and many Christians and Gambian Muslims expressed discomfort at this move to recognise a state religion. Additionally, Jammeh’s moves to legalise other aspects of religious dogma (the obligation for women to cover their hair in public, for example) lost him support.

Together with this, in the months before the election race, former MP and party ally, Mama Kandeh defected from the party and ran in opposition to Jammeh. In doing so, he split the two-horse race and stole a significant portion of Jammeh’s supporters. The defector, in fact, won 17% of the vote, enough to have swung the outcome in Jammeh’s favour if he had still been with the party. Given the strong correlation between ethnic and political affiliation, Mama Kandeh’s split from the APRC diminished the voting power of the group by dividing their support between two candidates.

All this considered it seems more likely that Jammeh’s U-Turn could have more to do with feeling the sting of failing to act in the face of a preventable loss than “serious abnormalities”. Either way, this marks a departure from the status quo and we should watch West Africa’s leadership and see how it will react to the news: you can rest assured that would-be Jammeh’s in West Africa and beyond will be listening with intent

Eric Mwiine Mugaju has just completed MSc Social Policy at LSE. He writes regularly for The Observer (Uganda) on Ugandan politics, law and development issues in East Africa.

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