Although Alieu Momar Njie promised free, fair and transparent polls ahead of The Gambia’s elections, he faced criticism for heading an institution regarded by Gambians as not credible and independent. His integrity was questioned after reports surfaced his was once appointed by President Yahya Jammeh to oversee a key municipality as an acting mayor.
Njie was an accountant and hotelier, who lives with his two wives in the commercial city of Serrekunda. At some point, his business faced the threat of bankruptcy and Njie faced the most difficult financial time of his family life.
“It was difficult,” said his son Momodou Njie. “But he has always relied on the assurance of God to make it through.”
Not much is known about Njie, who is in his 80s. He was the commission of The Gambia Scout Association. He was praised for reforming the organization from a group known for just making camp fires in bushes to an association that will go on to provide life and job skills training to its young members. A few skills centers were built, but it was not long before Gambian authorities will arrest him on August 21, 2007, and charged with embezzling GMD4 million (US$142,857).
Prosecutors filed a Nolle Prosequi, only for Njie to be rearrested on November 10, 2007. The courts demanded a GMD1 million (US$35,714) bail to be posted before he could be released.
“Alieu Njie is an avid reader. Even in court, he was seen reading a newspaper and making phone calls,” says exiled journalist Fabakary Ceesay, who covered Njie’s trial for the local newspaper Foroyaa. “I was told he was one of those electoral officials who would tell his driver to use the official car and take all his junior officers home, before he can go home.”
“The executive committee brought the charges against Mr. Njie. But he is known to be an honest person,” said Gibril MS Njie (no relations), then the finance director for the scout association.
David Hafner replaced Alieu Njie as chief commissioner, and never returned to the association.
Njie was serving as a regional commissioner for The Gambia’s Independent Electoral Commission in the country’s province, before his appointment as acting Mayor of the Kanifing Municipality in April 2007, replacing Francis Gomez.
During his time as acting mayor, he has been praised for keeping the towns and municipalities cleaner than his predecessors.
“Some garbage trucks were getting rusted because they were considered spoiled by the other mayors. No one cared about doing anything to fix them,” said Nfansu Jatta, who worked at the KMC’s sanitary department. “Njie fixed them and made sure we regularly collected trash.”
Despite opposition unity and a sudden support for the coalition by first-time voters, experts expected the results to favor Mr. Jammeh. The European Union were denied observer status and ECOWAS boycotted the polls for the second time. Intimidation was rife with military men patrolling the streets armed.
Before a coalition was formed, Gambians advocated for a boycott of the polls. In 2011, six opposition parties boycotted local government and parliamentary elections saying polls are not free and fair.
ECOWAS said there was “an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power… and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation”.
There was no trust for the unique electoral system, in which Gambians take a marble and drop it in a metal box filled with sawdust at the bottom. When voters drop the marble into the box, it makes a sound like a bicycle bell, notifying electoral officials that a vote is being cast. It explains why bicycles are banned on elections day. The system has been widely criticized by the opposition. Opposition leaders say it can be easily rigged, but the government said it is cost effective and easier for the country’s many uneducated electorates to vote.
Ballot boxes are painted in the party colors of the candidates with their pictures and party symbol placed on them.
“Our elections is rig-proof,” said President Yahya Jammeh, who had urged Njie to invite the international community to observe.
Njie was concerned about the reports of rigging and voter fraud. In fact, he brought up the issue when Jammeh was formalizing his nomination. Before then, the little unknown electoral commissioner, who will preside over an election that gave the world a shocking outcome had put in place new regulations, unlike those passed in The Gambia’s parliament the summer before, to ensure transparent polls.
The Gambia’s parliament amended the electoral guideline, attaching heavy fees and conditions to seeking the country’s highest office. Opposition parties in The Gambia were financially handicapped and could not afford the fees on their own and run a successful campaign. They relied mostly on the donations of the country’s disenfranchised diaspora to fund their political activities. The diaspora, on the other hand, refused to finance individual parties and pushed for a coalition.
Alieu Momar Njie in a meeting with opposition leaders assured them the electoral commission was independent and would remain so. Many said he cannot be trusted. I had an interview with opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, shortly after Njie was named the chair of the Independent Electoral Commission.
I asked Darboe why Njie is to be trusted to oversee an election as a former acting mayor who is now heading a commission known to support the incumbent.
“He is a fine gentleman,” Darboe responded. “I have no reason whatsoever to question his integrity.”
We left it at that. But the criticism towards Njie surged as elections got closer. He received death threats online and from even people in The Gambia.
“Momodou Njie, I have two golden bullets,” wrote Demba N. Njie (no relation) to Njie’s son in a group called Gambia Youths and Women’s Forum on Facebook. “One is for Jammeh and one is for your father if he declares Jammeh the winner of this elections.”
Momodou always defended his father online, where opposition to Jammeh and the electoral commission is strong. Momodou made a prediction of results saying incumbent President Yahya Jammeh will win. I wrote in an article that he made a mistake exercising his right to free speech forgetting the position his father holds and his right to remain silent.
I called Momodou and it was shortly before midnight. We spoke and I reminded him of what jailed opposition leader Ousainou Darboe said of his father and that he should not be online attempting to defend his father’s integrity. That he should allow him to do his job and wait for election day.
Momodou was one of the few people that called me encouraging me to continue using diplomacy in engaging The Gambia’s government under Jammeh on my disagreement with policies and youth matters. I received death threats after having a meeting with The Gambia’s chief envoy to the United States, Ambassador Sheikh Omar Faye in September and October. Momodou was not a stranger to such threats and barrage of accusations I was facing. He was accused of conniving with the officials of the embassy in Washington, DC to help Gambian dissidents defect to the ruling APRC party under the disguise of national reconciliation.
“I will be quite now,” Momodou told me. “You are right. I will issue an apology. I already apologized on Freedom Radio, but I will still do so again and wait for the elections results.”
“You better!,” I jokingly said, before we said goodnight and wished each other well.
The next day, Momodou issued an apology for the prediction he made. Well, his father has proved not just his critics wrong, but Momodou’s political prophecy.
On elections day, Momodou said his father was under duress and that there were credible threats to his life. He urged his father to take a bullet than announce a result that those not bear the will of The Gambian people.
This election was a little different. Alieu Njie made sure that the opposition had equal time with the incumbent on the state-run broadcast network. He prohibited them from editing their rallies and their various addresses to citizens. The opposition quickly capitalized on the rare opportunity and doubled down on their criticism of Jammeh and his government.
Then Njie made a surprise announcement. Ballot boxes will not be transported to a counting center. He barred the traditional practice of counting. Counting will be instant at the polling stations and the results tallied at the electoral command center. The new method he felt, will ensure that no rigging occur.
The elections had its hiccups. May not be ruled free and fair as the playfield favored the incumbent. The opposition overcame the obstacles in what would be regarded as one of, if not, The Gambia’s only transparent poll.
Alieu Momar Njie, the man who’s name will go down in African history as the presider of the first election that ended a dictatorship, has been vindicated. Njie has proven his critics wrong, went against all odds and left experts and analysts awestruck.