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.

Gabonese Elections: Why Democratic Institutions Do Not Always Mean Democracy

To understand the values that a nation wishes to convey to the world, take a look at its official name. The United States, for example, clearly values unity. So does the United Kingdom. The People’s Republic of China seems to embody the populist spirit of the Communist Party. The name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo indicates an affinity for democracy. The word that comes up most, however, is “republic.”

The world is covered in republics. People’s republics, democratic republics, socialist republics, Islamic republics, and federal republics. The word “republic” comes from the latin word “respublica,” meaning “entity of the people.” With so many republics, then, we must live in a world of democratic utopia. Not so, however. La République Gabonaise is, after all, the official name of Gabon, a small country on the western coast of Africa. An event that occurred on Friday, however, seems to indicate that it is more an entity of the family than an entity of the people.

The location of Gabon within Africa
The location of Gabon within Africa

Last month, the president of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba, was re-elected. Jean Ping, Mr. Bongo’s opponent, lost by a tiny margin. After it was announced that Ping had lost, his supporters became livid–and for good reason. Mr. Ping had been leading up until the very end, when results for Mr. Bongo’s home province, Haut-Ogooué, were counted. Statistics indicated a 99.9% turnout with 95% of voters in favor of Mr. Bongo. Considering the turnout elsewhere was only 59%, these statistics are unlikely. For this reason, protesters turned out in droves. The national assembly was set ablaze, 5 were killed, and 1000 were arrested.

The protesters also had good reason to protest Bongo’s presidency. He was first elected in 2009 after the death of the country’s previous ruler, Omar Bongo. Omar Bongo had run Gabon since 1967, first under a single-party state and later after the introduction of multi-party democracy. During Omar Bongo’s tenure, oil was discovered in Gabon. Billions of dollars worth of oil revenue began flowing into the country. It did not flow evenly, however. It went straight to the top, with  the Bongo family and its allies became vastly wealthy through corruption. It is no surprise, then, that Ali Bongo was elected president in 2009. He is Omar Bongo’s son, so he had the support of almost endless funds and a deeply entrenched political establishment.

That brings us to what happened this Friday. As a result of these massive electoral disparities and questionable results, Jean Ping challenged the election in court and called for a recount. The court decided on its verdict this Friday. It decided that there were, in fact, irregularities in the vote. But it did not see a problem with the results of Haut-Ogooué. Instead, it nullified the results in 21 polling stations, giving Mr. Bongo an even larger lead. Why would it make such a decision? Well, courts are supposed to be independent from a country’s administration in order to prevent conflicts of interest. In states like Gabon, however, leaders like Omar Bongo spent decades building autocratic political systems in which the interests of everyone point in the same direction: the maintenance of power by the current elite. Thus the court, whose members can be appointed and dismissed by the president, has been filled with partisans who are loyal to the Bongo government.

But Gabon isn’t exactly an oppressive dictatorship. Unlike in Equatorial Guinea, the oil wealth has improved conditions for many. Unlike in North Korea, it has no cult of personality. Unlike in Eritrea, it has little forced labor. Over the course of the last year, fraudulent elections have occurred in Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of the Congo. Yet unlike in these countries, opposition candidates in Gabon were allowed to campaign freely, there was little voter intimidation, and voter participation was high. Is it unfair, then, to claim that Gabon fails to put the “public” in “republic”?

Despite the fact that Gabon maintains some democratic institutions, such a claim is not unfair. Why? Because the preferences of the people had absolutely no bearing on the results of the election. While Gabon is not a traditional dictatorship that uses heavy-handed tactics to ensure complete concentration of power, it is most definitely a soft dictatorship that cultivates a believable façade of democracy while maintaining power in less sinister ways. This distinction between hard and soft dictatorship is an important one.

Take the comparison of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, for example. Their cultural, economic, and political histories are remarkably similar, resulting in two autocratic political systems. The two countries are located right next to each other on the map. Both were dominated by the Fang and related ethnic groups. Both were colonized by European powers and gained independence in the 1960s. Both discovered valuable oil reserves, resulting in a massive influx of wealth. Both have autocratic leaders who concentrate much of the wealth and power within a tight-knit circle of friends and family. But the path that Gabon has taken is decidedly less sinister.

Equatorial Guinea’s early post-independence history was marked by mass deportations, a country-wide system of forced labor, economic collapse, widespread political assassinations, and a reign of terror by president and his paramilitary organizations. A third of country’s population fled. The elite of Equatorial Guinea, centered on the family of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, maintains power with sweeping oppression. Opposition is harassed to the point where it is practically nonexistent. Thus Obiang handily won recent “elections” with over 90% of the vote. The Gabonese government, on the other hand, has never relied on terror to control its people. In recent decades, a healthy opposition has been allowed to develop. That is why the recent election was so closely contested. But to win the election, all that was required of Bongo was relatively minor manipulation of the results and a loyal court to uphold the fraudulent results. That is the difference between a soft dictatorship and hard dictatorship. In Equatorial Guinea, terror pervades political life and democratic institutions are nonexistent. In Gabon, democratic institutions are allowed but they are simply ineffective in the face of the loyalties that Bongo has built within the government.

Soft dictatorships are certainly not as bad as hard ones. They allow decisive action to be taken without the level of oppression seen elsewhere. The gulf states, for example, have channeled their oil wealth to develop massive prosperity despite a lack of democracy. These kingdoms and emirates, however, are not attempting to paint themselves as something that they’re not. By claiming to derive legitimacy from their people, governments like the one in Gabon are lying to the world. If they truly believe their system of government is more effective than democracy, they should not brand themselves a republic. The world is covered in republics in name only. But make no mistake. The existence of democratic institutions is not all that is required to make a democracy.

Welcome to NewsAware!

Welcome everyone! I’m very excited to be writing NewsAware’s first post! This post will simply be an explanation of what NewsAware aims to be and what you can expect from future posts. NewsAware was born out of my desire to better understand the world. As the name suggests, its focus is on the news and current events. But, unlike traditional news outlets, it is not driven by viewer ratings and consequently does not intend to comment on the biggest story of the day. On the contrary, the entire purpose of NewsAware is to dig deeper, to find international stories that don’t make the front page of the mainstream media, and to truly understand them.

If you, like me, truly want to understand the world, then this is the place to be. If you, like me, are tired of seeing important stories from around the globe go either unreported or underreported, then look no further. Because that’s why NewsAware was created. It was created to find important but underreported stories, to synthesize local material on those stories, to research their historical contexts, to generate meaningful analysis, and to present all of that information here–to you. NewsAware is here to go beyond the front page–and to make understanding what goes on in the world a little bit easier.