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.”
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.