The Gambians will head to polls in December to elect a president and in the process, the small nation will either choose to stay with President Jammeh who has demonstrated his will to rule for another term or elect a new opposing candidate.
Opposition leaders and Gambian political commentators home and abroad have all said that the opposition political parties are too weak, individually, to defeat the country’s longstanding ruler.
However, uniting Gambian opposition has proven to be more difficult to predict than the “landslide” victory that their repeated failure would grant their opponents, APRC—and though that fact remains as clear as their desire to defeat Jammeh, another coalition failure is imminent.
And yet one excuse that analysts will give them for another failure is “ideological differences”, an argument that only has relevance in one’s respect for freedom of expression.
Because in my view the opposition’s failure to back a single candidate sprang from two main issues: hypocrisy and the pursuit of power with as much eager to deny their fellows the throne as they would of President Jammeh.
No wonder the NRP leader said “some opposition leaders hate one another more than they hate President Jammeh”
Thus, it would seem that the only agreement they have— which is surprisingly not enough to motivate them to unite— is that Jammeh should go.
With so significant a history of disunity, where those Fatoumata Tambajang and others who are trying to unite opposition get their inspiration and how would they reconcile these seemingly parallel political lines that have not met for two decades?
Before we discuss the chances a coalition might have against Jammeh, let’s first look at how the choosing of leadership will once again be the source of the problem whether its selection method is either “personality-led or party-led”.
Barely a month ago, the leader of the most popular opposition party, Lawyer Darboe, was jailed for three years and the UDP is yet to select a replacement, popularity of whom MIGHT fall short of Darboe’s—though that remains a hunch.
Hamat Bah is the leader of the second biggest opposition party, NRP, though some claim GDC might have replaced them given the surprise large support they have pulled—I doubt if the same can be said of the socialist PDOIS’s Halifa.
So if it is going to be a party-led (leadership from majority party), the UDP will argue that it will produce the leader, since they still think they have the majority which will likely take them back to the 2011 scenario where other opposition parties will suggest going to a “primary” to select a leader.
The argument from other parties, PDOIS and NRP, who might think they have the leaders who are more schooled in politics than the prospective UDP candidate— because they came up against Jammeh many times— might say they deserve the leadership.
Both Halifa Sallah and Hamat Bah have demonstrated enough will to rub shoulders against Jammeh if they are selected by a coalition and that could only mean they hope to be selected, though that might not mean they won’t back another.
Therefore, they are likely going to argue “personality-led” alliance which will give them a chance since NRP leader told me he would make “necessary sacrifice” to ensure that opposition unite.
And when I asked him if he would back another candidate if he is not selected, his answer was “if he is more credible than me”.
Given Hamat’s current position as the leader—eligible to contest elections—of the second most popular party when the first most popular was jailed, his answer to my question from my point of view means “I expect to be the one seen to be more credible than any prospective UDP leader or other political leaders”.
But if I am wrong about what Hamat thinks of his suitability to lead an opposition coalition, I have reported politics in this country long enough to know that the same can’t be said of his supporters.
Moreover, there isn’t even any tangible evidence as one might want to make Hamat believe that GDC is more popular than him if the party is new and has no elections records to prove its popularity since crowd can mislead at times.
And given the history of the successful failure of the 2011 coalition attempt and how the UDP supporters blamed the NRP and PDOIS leaders for it, they are less likely to back Hamat and Sallah.
Darboe told me at that time that “you know we are the clear majority and we have never seen a coalition of different parties going to a primary to select a leader… It is individual parties that select their leaders that way”.
He was apparently referring to an argument made by the NRP and the PDOIS at the time that they should go to a primary and invite people to vote for who they want to be their leader— a proposal that UDP sees as “unjustifiable” and “hypocritical”.
And now that Darboe has gone to jail and even if he hasn’t is over-aged, will the UDP back a Halifa or Hamat-led coalition?
This is not just less likely on the part of Hamat but perhaps impossible because there is, evidently, huge distrust between NRP and UDP following the 2011 coalition failure— though they might deny it—especially from their party funders from Diaspora who often attack Hamat as an “unserious politician”.
Having said that, you might think that Darboe who calls Halifa Sallah “suma harrit” will convince his party to rally behind him but that is less likely.
And though the UDP leader is yet to be selected, NRP and PDOIS leaders might also, given their positions on the Gambian political stage, claim to be more experienced or even suggest again that they go to primary.
After looking at all the complexities one must now be gasping for air and asking who and where the hell is the unifying factor/figure here?
The spirit in the GDC is that they have come with a difference and Gambians have lost faith in the old-guards and wanted a new, young leader, which they apparently produced given Mamma Kandeh’s youthful valor and charm.
And since GDC is not part of the history of “they did it to us and we will retaliate”, could they be the so-call unifying factor?
The GMC’s Mai Fatty or GPDP’s Henry Gomez despite their eloquence and charisma have left the country and did not come back for a long time, thus the new electoral law which makes it mandatory that all executives of a party must be resident in the country disqualified them.
There is less likelihood that other parties especially the UDP will join a GDC-led alliance, though it can happen.
But even more complicated will be the situation if the UDP selected candidate happens to resonate well with the population because that will end the chance of them backing GDC too.
Opposition committee on coalition
A few months ago, a group that calls itself an opposition committee on reforms and coalition has been formed by members of different political parties to jointly, in their own words, “pursue electoral and constitutional reforms that opposition have been demanding for”.
But the group, needless to say, is membered by partisan politicians though they insist that their main aims are collective good and not individual party interest.
And since it is now almost clear that there won’t be another reform one member of the group told me that their agenda will now be a coalition.
I have spoken to all of them and have found their individual arguments almost in line, entirely, with their party stance on some of the divisive issues in the opposition camp like choosing the leadership of a coalition should there be one.
And though such conversations, I must admit, were one on one and away from their colleagues, I can judge that even when the members of the opposition inter-party claims to be neutral, its members aren’t.
Moreover, the opposition inter-party committee which is recognized by all parties except PDOIS does not seem to recognize the efforts of non-partisan power broker in the person of Fatoumata Tambajang.
Tanbajang has made name for herself as a power broker between opposition parties and even said at a UDP rally at Brikama that she has considered uniting Gambian opposition her “mission” but how will such a mission be fulfilled if the opposition inter-party committee members don’t recognize it.
Therefore, even if members of the opposition inter-party committee sit down to think of the modalities of selecting a leader, will each member not be guided by your party’s interest when making his or her contribution?
And even if they reach a consensus on the modalities of selecting a leader, will party leaders accept it since the members are middle-rank executive members of the parties?
How about the blessing of the PDOIS that does not recognize the group?
The cyber tyrants
Gambian opposition receives their financial support from Gambians abroad who, by the virtue of their position, have become very important to the survival of opposition parties in the country.
This vital position has made the people in the Diaspora a significant voice in the decision making and politics of opposition parties.
However, the DIVISIVE and AUTHORITARIAN nature of the Gambian diaspora has made them an important party in the decades of failed attempts by the opposition to unite against APRC at polls.
Each warrior behind the keyboard with a significant number of intolerance enough to make a good tyrant wants to be heard and as well wants to dictate and see his or her commands executed.
This has made the diaspora one of the major problems to opposition unification though they are often overlooked because of their uncompromising and intolerant response to criticisms or even towards people with whom they held a different viewpoint.
And because of the important constituent they are, in both funding and intellectual support, to Gambian opposition their position— which are often divisive— are as important as that of their party leaders’.
So that whatever a particular party wants to do or should do, a special time is allocated to wait for the words of the authoritarian internet warriors before any action is taken.
And though members of the diaspora are too important to be ignored in the political life of Gambian opposition, their divisive and authoritarian nature and sometimes sheer ignorance of the realities on the ground often becomes an impediment.
Then the question becomes, should there be another attempt, what role will the divisive and authoritarian diaspora play in it and who are they likely to back?
One opportunity they might explore though if they didn’t agree with one another and still want to form an alliance is to go for a neutral person— someone who is not a registered member of any party.
In that regard, the selected person will have to sign a contract with the existing political parties on terms agreed with the “unity government” should they win the APRC at polls.
And since the dispute is about who control what: power, the party with the majority can be given the majority of ministerial positions.
In other words, much power in that unity government which might run for two or three years can be given to the majority so that how much power one gets will be decided by how much support one has.
Even the egoistic UDP will likely agree on these terms…
Devil of position bargaining
Position bargaining— we are right they are wrong— is the devil that ends all negotiations without any agreement because there is no negotiation without compromise.
Ask a hostage negotiator or a psychologist and he or she will support my argument.
Every party in a negotiation is sent by a group of people who are expecting their rep to come to them with something—just let it be something either what they expect of little less.
But nothing is not an option in any negotiation and what a compromise does is avoiding a situation where one party will argue “our position was right” because that created a we-against-them situation which is confrontation—that devil that eventually kills any negotiation.
So, reaching a consensus among opposition will require that each party to the negotiation understands that the other has an ego to massage and that rep from a big or small party ought to go back with something which must be given to them.
In this case, a neutral person who will lead a unity government in which power will be shared based on the support behind a particular party is a neutral ground that offers everybody at least something.
That is why all parties in a failed negotiation become automatically co-authors of their failure since politics and democracy are built on the principles of compromise.
I understand one can argue against my points and suggest that the UDP is big and naturally has to produce the leader but in this political puzzle all the parties hold equal strength since a combined power is what makes megawatts sufficient enough to light the city.
In that case, all parties to the negotiation hold equal strength and since opposition claims the two decades APRC rule has made Gambians desperate for change, then they must understand that “desperate times call for desperate measures”.
Uniting Gambian opposition is an analysis series by Mustapha Darboe, an award-winning Gambian journalist – a former news editor at Today News and senior reporter at the Standard Newspaper.
This article was first published on Torch on Gambia with permission to republish from the blog and the author.