After the oppressive rule of former President Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia has decided to move on, and this is in part down to the will of the Gambian people. The Gambian government has announced that the country will establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in the mould of that of post-Apartheid South Africa, to investigate the abuses of power during Yahya Jammeh’s rule. The Gambian Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou made the announcement in Banjul a few weeks ago adding that Jammeh’s finances would also be subject to investigation. However the new administration has been further bolstered by parliamentary elections that will rekindle a democratic political culture in the country.
The progress in the Gambia is important to note because it shows how the country is dissembling the machinery of Jammeh’s authoritarian government. The most important aspect of this was the creation of a new parliament with the full powers that the Gambian constitution allows. Under Jammeh the legislature had become nothing more than a rubber stamp to give the country the veneer of democratic procedure, but the structures of the parliament were under Presidential authority. Candidates were pre-selected, opposition was suppressed, and the Speaker was appointed by the President. It was a kangaroo parliament, but this is no longer the case.
On Thursday elections were held to the National Assembly and President Adama Barrow’s former party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), won 31 out of 58 seats. The other parties who made up the Coalition 2016 alliance- that which backed Barrow for the presidency- won 11 seats. The newly formed Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC) picked up 5 seats along with 1 independent candidate. The final 5 seats are appointed by the President, which gives the anti-corruption and pro-democracy forces in the legislature a working majority.
Yahya Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), won only 5 seats. The country’s electoral authority, the Independent Election Commission, said that turnout was considered low. This would have meant that if the Jammeh government genuinely had the consensual support of 39.6%, as would have implied from the 2016 presidential election, the APRC would have had significantly more representatives.
Further, the Coalition 2016 has split into a series of different political parties, and in a first-past-the-post system this would have created a spoiler effect, thus aiding Jammeh’s party. The election results, coupled with these structural factors, would seem to indicate that the 2016 presidential election contained a decent amount of vote rigging and/or people were not fully aware of what the Jammeh government was doing.
Aside from the elections, the Barrow Administration has also been quick to re-establish the life support system of any democracy: civil society. Journalists have been freed from prison and their constitutional rights now appear to be respected. The government is now openly promoting knowledge of the country’s constitution, and social media is know being used by the state to engage with civil society groups. The democratic culture that this creates will be important in preventing future abuses of state power and cultivating a desire for democratic elections in the years to come.
But the most important aspect of this is the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, akin to that of South Africa. After the fall of the Apartheid government in 1994, the country desired to move from the brutal realities of everyday life. For the overwhelming majority of citizens, the South African government saw them as public enemy number one and worthy of harassment and persecution. South African history is littered with examples of non-white citizens being criminalised for arbitrary reasons, most notable were the cases of ANC activists like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Oliver Tambo.
The Gambian government is right to pursue this same course of action. Despite the flaws of the TRC, it allowed South Africans who were victims of Apartheid, and indeed those who took part in the oppression, closure and a fresh start respectively. By giving the country a clean slate, the country was allowed to move forward into a new era, whilst remembering what had happened so it couldn’t be repeated. The Gambia needs the same process. Such a commission would be able to show how authoritarianism, irrespective of its purported ideology, should not be adopted as a form of government, and that the democratic process needs to be protected and cherished.
To conclude, The Gambia is moving on from its brutal past and coming to grips with recent history will be an essential part of that. The democratic political culture of the country is still in an embryonic phase and will need to be protected from Jammeh loyalists who still remain convinced of the former president’s right to rule. The election results have shown that the government have a mandate to enact anti-corruption legislation and make changes to make the country more democratic.
Having inspected the governmental priorities of the UDP, I have found that the party believes in decentralisation and this will be a way of politicising the citizenry and strengthening the country’s democratic institutions. If people are given civil liberties and political obligations, if an authoritarian comes to power, the citizenry will not be passive in their resistance. A politically active and educated populace will act as the ultimate safeguard against any seizure of power, and the UDP would be wise to start enacting a reformist agenda as soon as possible.