What to Know Ahead of Thursday’s Election in The Gambia

The Gambia made headlines a few weeks ago when it became the third country to announce its intention to leave the International Criminal Court. In the coming days, it is likely to make headlines once again after of its December 1 presidential election. In order for you to understand the coming headlines, you may need some background information. So here it is: everything you need to know to make sense of the upcoming Gambian presidential election.

Let’s start with some basic information about the Gambia. It is a tiny country, the smallest on the African mainland. Surrounded on three sides by Senegal, it is a geographical anamoly that came into being as a British colonial outpost surrounded by the sea of the French colonial empire. The country follows the course of the Gambia river, a fairly densely populated area with a population of around two million. Much of the population is concentrated along the country’s Atlantic coast; the capital, Banjul, is located there, as is the country’s largest city, Serrekunda. Around 95% of its two million residents are Muslim, and its current president recently declared it an “Islamic Republic.”

A close-up map of The Gambia
A close-up map of The Gambia
The Gambia's location in Africa. It's the tiny sliver of land inside the circle.
The Gambia’s location in Africa. It’s the tiny sliver of land inside the circle.
Yahya Jammeh
Yahya Jammeh

Now that we’re on the subject of the Gambia’s current president, let’s introduce the candidates who will be standing in the election on December 1. Yahya Jammeh, the current president, is in the running. His primary opponent is Adama Barrow, who most of theopposition has rallied around. The third candidate is Mamma Kandeh, an MP. Jammeh has ruled the Gambia since 1994 when he took power in a coup d’état. Since then, he has won the country’s previous four elections. Over the course of his rule, he has become known for his oppresive rule. He has overseen a brutal crackdown against the LGBT community and threatened to behead gay Gambians. He has claimed that he can cure AIDS and Ebola. He has declared that “Allah elected me, and only Allah can remove me.” As a result, he is famous in the west as a reclusive dictator.

Jammeh’s most significant opponent is a politician by the name of Adama Barrow, a prominent businessman in the Gambia. A coalition of seven opposition parties has decided to throw its weight behind Barrow in an attempt to unseat Jammeh. Barrow has agreed to resign from his party, the United Democratic Party, in order to transcend political divisions. He is running as a unifier who promises to end the repressive tactics of the Jammeh regime. Barrow faces competition from Mamma Kandeh, the leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress party who has stressed the importance of economic development. Despite the fact that the opposition is divided between Barrow and Kandeh, the coalition behind Barrow means that it is more united than at any time since Jammeh took power in 1994.

Considering the profile of the candidates, it is not surprising that Jammeh has lost popularity over the years. However, despite the relative unity of the opposition, it will also not be surprising if he wins the election next Thursday. According to the Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental advocacy group, “Gambian security forces have used enforced disappearances, torture, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests to suppress dissent and preserve Jammeh’s grip on power.” Freedom House, a non-governmental research organization, reports that “elections are violent and rigged.” As a result, it is unlikely that voters will oust Jammeh.

5 more years of the Jammeh regime will likely result in few changes for the country. The primary virtue of the regime, its stability, will ensure the continued profitability of the Gambia’s largest industry, tourism. Jammeh will also continue with his strict Islamist program. Thus the short-term effects will likely be minimal. In the long-term, however, Jammeh’s misrule will likely have severe negative effects on the Gambia’s economy. Why? Because the Gambia is leaking.

It is leaking people. Gambians account for the largest number of migrants arriving in Italy per capita. In this year alone, 10,000 Gambians have already left the country to seek better lives in Europe. While a small elite leads comfortable lives, the vast majority of the population faces grim economic prospects at home with 60% of the population living in poverty. In order to escape poverty, Gambians escape their country. And many never arrive at their destinations. Just last week, the goalkeeper of the Gambian women’s national soccer team drowned in the Mediterranean. As a result, the Gambia is facing a crisis. The people are the lifeblood of any nation, and the Gambia is bleeding. On Thursday, we’ll have a clearer picture of whether the president-elect will be able to heal the country’s wounds. As of now, the prognosis is not bright.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Next Conflict

Like the United States, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is set to face a political transition in the near future. Like President Obama, the DRC’s Joseph Kabila’s second and final term is scheduled to expire in the coming months. The similarities, however, end there. Unlike Obama, whose successor was chosen in an election, Kabila has postponed elections over and over again. Unlike Obama, who is preparing to leave the White House in January, Kabila is not prepared to cede control of the DRC. Instead, he intends to extend his mandate, creating the perfect conditions for a political crisis.

In an attempt to de-esecalate the situation, Kabila appointed a politician from the opposition, Samy Badibanga, as his Prime Minister last Thursday. The appointment of Badibanga is a culmination of a “national dialogue” between the government and opposition that concluded last month. The talks, which were boycotted by most major opposition parties, agreed to delay elections in return for a degree of power sharing. While the purpose of the talks was to avoid a violent political crisis, if history is any indication (and it’s usually a pretty good one), the appointment of Badibanga is far from a sustainable solution. To understand why, you’ll need some background information about the DRC.

The location of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The location of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a massive country. In area, it is the largest country in sub-saharan Africa. Its territory spans from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the African Great Lakes in the east to the vast Congo rainforest in between. With such a large territory, it’s no surprise that the DRC is endowed with vast natural wealth. That wealth, however, has not translated into prosperity for the DRC’s equally vast populace. With 67.5 million inhabitants, it is the third-largest country in Africa in terms of population. As a result of its history as a colony of Belgium, it is also the world’s largest Francophone country. Also as a result of its colonial history, its post-independence history has been marred by unprecedented brutality.

Historically, political transitions in the The Democratic Republic of the Congo have been synonymous with violence and suffering. Almost immediately following independence in 1960, the country was swept by violent riots in protest of the lingering Belgian influence. The provinces of Katanga and South Kasai attempted to secede from the new state. The President and Prime Minister had a falling out, and the Prime Minister was dismissed. As a result, a rival government was set up in support the deposed Prime Minister. The government was paralyzed by infighting. Amid the chaos, a man named Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a bloodless coup in 1965. He quickly consolidated absolute power in an attempt to alleviate the violence and political deadlock.

Mobutu did not live up to his promise to save the country from ineffective politicians. Although he ended political infighting, he did so through repression. Mobutu’s government became nepotistic and kleptocratic, siphoning billions of dollars from the country’s mineral wealth for his own personal use. Supported by The West as an opponent to Communism, he lost crucial backing after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In 1997, with his health failing and neighboring countries vying to overthrow him, Mobutu, too, was deposed violently by Laurent Kabila as the country descended into civil war.

In 2005, another violent political transition rocked the DRC. Laurent Kabila was assassinated, and Joseph Kabila, his son, took his place. Thus Joseph Kabila came to power based on a long history of dysfunctional power transitions caused by politicians who were all too happy to hold onto power. According to the constitution of the DRC, another transition is scheduled for the near future. Will it maintain the tradition of dysfunction and violence?

At this point, it can be reasonably assumed that the “national dialogue” achieved very little in securing a long-term solution. This is mostly because the largest opposition party, the UDPS, boycotted the talks. Badibanga, too, is unpopular with the UDPS and its leader, Etienne Tshisekedi. As a result, the UDPS declared the appointment of Badibanga a “provocation” and has vowed to stage protests calling for Kabila’s ouster. So although Badibanga’s appointment was meant to signal reconciliation between the government and the opposition, hostility is still very much alive.

Ultimately, the future of the DRC lies in the hands of Joseph Kabila. If he agrees to hold elections and step down in accordance with the constitution, the DRC may witness its first ever peaceful transition of power. But he does not appear to be willing to step down peacefully. If he intends to rule indefinitely, there are truly only two possibilities. Either he will outsmart his opponents as he has with his “national dialogue,” further consolidating his rule. Or opposition leaders will continue to call for him to stop down, furthering the tense standoff and opening the door to greater violence. Ultimately, the self-interested desire of Congolese politicians to remain in power has brought untold suffering to the country’s people. So far, Kabila is continuing that tradition. The seeds of the next conflict have already been sown. While it is too early to tell whether violence will be prevented from blossoming, the appointment of Badibanga has done nothing to tackle the roots of the issue.

Poland, The World Order, and A Tale of Two Donalds

In 1795, Poland was wiped off the map. Partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, the country would not reemerge for over a century. 98 years ago from yesterday, the First World War ended and Poland reemerged as an independent state. As a result, November 11 is celebrated as Poland’s National Independence Day. This year, however, Poland’s government did not laud the country’s independence. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the country’s governing party, the Law and Justice Party, instead lamented the loss of sovereignty to the European Union. Meanwhile, tens of thousand of Polish citizens took to the streets of Warsaw. They set off flares, shouted ultranationalist slogans, and carried banners. One banner read “God, Honor, Fatherland,” and another read “Death to the enemies of the fatherland.”

In recent years, Poland has lurched far to the right. It has cultivated nationalism and rejected internationalism. It is riding the very same wave that has led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the shift in public opinion throughout Western Europe. Contrary to what many in the United States believe, it is impossible to escape this wave by fleeing to Canada. The people of Poland, Europe, and the world, too, appear to be rejecting the very foundations of the post-WWII global order.

Ever since Law and Justice took power last year the Civic Platform Party, once led by a man named Donald Tusk, Poland has turned sharply away from the European Union and towards authoritarian nationalism. It has gutted the country’s highest court, strengthened its grip on the media, promoted “traditional” catholic values, encouraged nationalism and xenophobia, rejected refugees, and taken a strongly eurosceptic position. Yet economically, it is not right-wing as imagined by most Americans. It is a strong proponent of the social safety net and opposes cuts to welfare spending. Thus its platform can be described a fusion of right-wing ultranationalism and left-wing socialism.

This same recipe is taking the world by storm. Donald Trump won the US presidency with the same formula, appealing to “America first” white nationalism while also pursuing protectionist and pro-welfare policies. Brexit, too, followed this formula, combining little-Englander nationalism with the economic concerns wrought by globalization. France’s FN, whose Marine Le Pen is set to be one of the country’s presidential candidates in 2017, is also staunchly protectionist while at the same time encouraging a resurgence in French nationalism. Political parties that merge left and right in a rejection of international integration have sprung up across The West.

While this ideology may seem like an honest expression of the alienation of the working people, it is in truth an insidious affront to the very ideals upon which the post-WWII global order was built. To see why, one needs not look any further than the Second World War. One of the most important effects of the Second World War was that it taught the lesson of how democratic systems of government come crashing down. When the global financial system crashed in 1929, economic insecurity skyrocketed. When faced with economic adversity, the population responded by blaming outsiders and retreating into nationalist tribes. Lower living standards made the people susceptible to grandiose promises to restore prior glory. The ability to recognize nuance was destroyed by fear, anger, and oversimplified narratives. As a result, Germany’s “national socialist” party would lead the world into a dark cloud of genocide and war.

Out of the ashes of Europe rose a new western order based on the ideals of international integration and multiculturalism. Leaders convened to ensure that the lessons of the Second World War would be learned and its horrors never repeated. Leaders promoted economic growth and created welfare states to ensure that citizens would never become so economically downtrodden that they felt compelled to blame scapegoats. They promoted globalization and economic integration to make countries dependent on one another and therefore more likely to cooperate. They embraced a multicultural society as a rejection of the racist horrors of the Second World War. Today, the champion of these values is the European Union, and Poland’s loudest cheerleader for these values is former-Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union has spread its model across Eastern Europe. Poland transitioned to democracy, became a member of NATO in 1999, became a member of the European Union in 2004, and has has seen some of the greatest gains of any country following the fall of communism. Like the rest of The West, Poland has enjoyed relative stability and prosperity under the guidance of the post-WWII order. International dependence has meant that no major war has broken out between global powers, international trade has opened up markets and enabled economic growth that has lifted millions into the middle class, and international interaction has meant that the world has become far more tolerant towards individuals from different backgrounds and nationalities. The benefits of this system were so apparent to the Polish people that, in 2011, they re-elected a Prime Minister for the first time. That Prime Minister was Donald Tusk, and he is now the President of the European Council, one of the most important bodies of the European Union.

Yet the events of yesterday indicate that millions of Polish citizens have now rejected the international global order. And as of earlier this week, so too have millions of American citizens. Across Europe and the United States, the far-right is once again wedding nationalism and socialism. At no time since the end of the Second World War have these two ideologies been so closely intertwined. And at no time since the end of the Second World War has the international integration that ushered in stability and prosperity been so threatened.

The all-important question, then, is whether this rejection is temporary or permanent. Is it the desperate dying breath of an old ideology of division, or is it the violent awakening of a new chapter in the international state of affairs? In order to ensure that this new wave of illiberalism does not threaten the stability and progress enjoyed by The West since the end of the Second World War, European leaders must not let their continent go in the same direction as the United States. Now that the enforcer of the current global order has abandoned it, it us up to the leaders of the European Union to position itself as the global defender of international integration and cooperation. Donald Tusk, meet Donald Trump. You may have lost Poland to this movement, but it is not too late to save Europe and the world. Good luck.


Korea’s Mythical Woman of Steel

43,000 people took to the streets of Seoul on Saturday demanding that their president, Park Geun-hye, tender her resignation. Her approval rating has plummeted to an unprecedented 5%, the lowest ever recorded by pollsters in South Korea. On Thursday, Ms. Park appointed a new Prime Minister after she dismissed her old one. Dozens of aides have been let go. Rumors swirl regarding Ms. Park’s fecklessness, corruption, and even involvement in a pseudo-christian cult. What on earth is going on?

It’s all part of a scandal that is taking the South Korean government by storm. A few weeks ago, it was discovered that one of Ms. Park’s oldest and closest friends, Choi Soon-sil, has been manipulating the President for her own personal gain. Ms. Choi has apparently advised Mr. Park on classified issues of the state. She is also accused of using her closeness to the president to extract 70 million dollars in donations from corporate giants like Samsung and Hyundai. The scandal began when it was found that Ms. Choi’s daughter was given preferential admissions treatment at a prestigious university, apparently as a result of her mother’s relationship with the President. The Korean people are infuriated that a shadowy, unelected figure was able to wield so much influence over Ms. Park. That such a thing could even occur may seem unbelievable. Considering Ms. Park’s history, however, it becomes a bit more understandable.

Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee. The elder Park is a monumental and controversial figure in modern South Korean history. He ruled the country for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979. During that time, South Korea underwent one of the most miraculous economic miracles in human history. Before the Korean war in the 1950s, South Korea was already one of the poorest countries in Asia. After the war, it was even more devastated. By the time Park Chung-hee was assassinated, however, it had become an industrial powerhouse. Today, its vast wealth has propelled it to its current place as the world’s 11th largest economy. Yet such progress came at a steep cost.

In order to develop his country, Park Chung-hee repressed it. Opposition was severely restricted, and the government can be described as nothing less than a dictatorship. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer attempted to assassinate Park Chung-hee. He missed. Instead, he hit his wife, Park Geun-hye’s mother. Suddenly, the younger Park was, at the age of 22, thrust into the national spotlight, effectively assuming the role of first lady to a controversial dictator. Five years later, in 1979, Park Chung-hee’s assassinator did not miss.

This was a tumultuous time in the life of a young Park Geun-hye. As she simultaneously assumed a range of new responsibilities while coping with the loss of her mother, a mysterious man named Choi Tae-min approached Ms. Park and claimed that he could pass messages to her deceased mother. Besides being a controversial figure with cult connections, Choi Tae-min is also the father of Choi Soon-sil. Thus as Ms. Park grew close to the elder Choi, she also befriended his daughter.

Ms. Park and Ms. Choi remained close until today, when their relationship has come under immense scrutiny. The intrigue and opaqueness of the situation has given rise to a tremendous amount of speculation—the media has spread rumors of extramarital affairs and cult practices, and it has portrayed the president as little more than a puppet to a ruthless manipulator. In the midst of conflicting lies and what appears to be a coverup that runs deep into the administration, Koreans have little idea what they can believe and who they should trust. The people are in a state of shock. But should they be?

Ms. Park’s autobiography is entitled “Steeled by Despair, Motivated by Hope.” According the Washington Post, part of her appeal is “the sense that she had already given her life to the country.” Both her parents were slain for Korea. She lost her family to the country, and she rose to the occasion to become acting First Lady. She never married, instead pursuing a career in politics. She is an aloof, disconnected figure, and the history of her life is deeply entwined with the history of the country. As a result, she is seen as an almost larger-than-life figure.

But over the past few weeks, that persona has come crashing down. Her steely impregnability has been revealed to be little more than a façade. It has been discovered that the vulnerability that characterized her youth has persisted until the present. Why, though, is such a revelation so shocking? What more can be expected of someone with Ms. Park’s background? She suffered, her friend helped her, and she has continued to seek out advice. Granted, she did so irresponsibly and probably lied about it, but irresponsibility and lies are hardly surprising from politicians, and past Korean presidents have shown that the Korean political system is far from immune to corruption.

Park Geun-hye did something immensely stupid. But doing stupid things is one of the few things that every single member of our species can relate to. No cult-of-personality or mythical persona can change that. So the media should stop sensationalizing this scandal, because it is the sensationalization of Park Geun-hye that makes it so shocking in the first place. We mustn’t let ourselves be surprised to discover that our leaders are only human.