The danger of a single story on the contested transition in The Gambia

The current crisis in The Gambia has a simple story. On 1 December 2016 presidential elections were held in the country with the incumbent Yahya Jammeh and the opposition leader Mr Adama Barrow as frontrunners. The following day, the Independent Electoral Commission of the Gambia announced a surprising result, Jammeh lost the election by 39.6 % to Barrow’s 43.3 % of the votes cast.

Rescinding his concession of defeat made in a televised telephonic call to the winner of the Election on the same day, Jammeh announced his rejection of the election results, pushing the country into a political turmoil unprecedented in his 22 year authoritarian rule.

‘Typical’ of an African election, an election was held. The opposition won. The incumbent refused to accept the results and a crisis ensued. Well, the only deviation is that for a ‘typical’ African authoritarian leader, it is not ‘typical’ to convene free and fair election, let alone to concede defeat.

As the story goes, it is no one but Jammeh to blame for this crisis. As in all stories of good versus evil, you have to take out the villain to safeguard the good. In the context of The Gambia, this means that the result of the election should be upheld and Jammeh should be forced out as declared by ECOWAS, AU and the UN.

Check any major news outlet covering the crisis including those in Africa, this is the line that is consistently narrated without exception.

In her now famous 2009 TED Talk Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently argued against a “The Danger of a Single Story.” Her point was that the complexity of a human experience cannot be reduced to a single narrative and when reduced to such narrative it is sure to lead to dangerous outcomes.

So could there be another side to the single story on The Gambia? Is this yet another single story with a danger?

Another side of the story?

In an opinion piece published on Rwanda’s newspaper New Times, commentator Lonzen Rugira took issue with the single narrative. He argued that there is more to the situation in The Gambia than meets the eye. His point as captured in the tile of his commentary is that ‘the international media and human rights organizations’ are to blame for the ‘unforced’ errors of the opposition that triggered the crisis.

For sure, this is a kind of analysis that one may push aside as counter intuitive, if not down right apologist for giving an excuse to what all agree to be a defeated authoritarian ruler. Well, even if one disagrees with him on blaming externals for the current woes of The Gambia, the truth is that Rugira is not without a point.

It is true that #Gambiahasdecided that Jammeh should go. However, as is often the case with elections, this decision leaves the question of Jammeh’s exit, namely what happens to him and his camp when and after leaving power, unanswered.

Curse of loss of election by an authoritarian leader

The descent of The Gambia into crisis is a result of what I call the curse of loss of election by an authoritarian ruler. While the electoral defeat of Jammeh the authoritarian ruler is a welcome development, it also presents the country with major issues. These include the questions of clarifying the fate of the outgoing president (terms of exit) after handing over power and the handling of the politics of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.

In a context like that of the Gambia, these issues affect whether there will be a smooth transfer of power leading to inclusive politics and deepening democratization — or to a period of political instability and uncertainty.

Lost opportunity

More than the electoral victory of Mr. Barrow, Jammeh’s acceptance of the result was crucial for peaceful transition. In a sign of good will, going beyond conceding defeat, on 5 December Jammeh’s government released 19 political prisoners, including Ousainou Darboe, the leader of Barrow’s United Democratic Party (UDP), followed by 12 others on 7 December.

This presented the Gambia a unique opportunity for a mutually agreed upon transition in which both smooth transfer of power to the winner of the election and secure exit for the outgoing president would have been assured.

As it turned out, this did not happen.

Instead of seizing the opportunity for an agreed transition, trends of politics of vengeance, not uncharacteristic of post-authoritarian transitions, started to emerge. Long suppressed members of the public did not take long before venting their understandable anger towards Jammeh, including in desecrating images of him. Perhaps in a move that pushed him to make a face about, talk of the uncertain future fate of a president who conceded defeat crept into the post-election political discourse.

As Rugira in his New Times commentary observed, the message coming from some in the opposition camp was ‘there would be no immunity; they’d return to the ICC; they’d seize Jammeh’s assets and prevent him from traveling abroad; and they’d prosecute him in less than a year and possibly within the next three months because they wanted to “move fast,” a senior official was quoted saying.’

A preventable crisis

Without a doubt there is a lot of blame to be attributed to Jammeh. Yet, it shouldn’t have been allowed to wreck havoc on the transitional process. After all, Jammeh was not expected to act in any way differently from what he did. In terms of steering the transition to success, at the very least, the opposition camp should have avoided any missteps.

The Gambia now faces a preventable crisis. An exit strategy could have been negotiated leading to peaceful transition.

The clear lesson from the crisis in The Gambia is that for a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, a free and fair election by itself is not enough. In such a context, the peaceful transfer of power and successful transition to democracy depends on an agreed political roadmap on how to manage the curse of loss of election by an authoritarian leader.

Could other African countries with similar situation be spared from similar trouble?

The Gambia is not unique in having an authoritarian ruler. There are many other African countries under the grip of Jammeh’s kith, some of whom with a record worse than Jammeh.

If these other rulers are not to take the wrong lesson and be encouraged into convening free and fair elections, the question that opposition parties, the citizenry and African regional and continental organizations should ask is whether they are willing to have an exit strategy that encourages these rulers into retirement and helps the country move forward with peaceful transfer of power and inclusive transition. This is sure to determine whether other countries will have the same troubled transition as The Gambia.

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