President Yahya Jammeh, in his New Year’s message to the Gambian people, persisted in his rejection of last month’s election outcome, which he says was tampered with.
On this basis, he quickly rescinded his concession to Adama Barrow, the coalition candidate. He has petitioned the Supreme Court to declare the election null and to demand a fresh vote; meanwhile, he has declared that he will stay in office in order to ‘defend the constitution.’
But was it the election that was tampered with or was it Jammeh himself? Jammeh’s mistake thus far is to pretend that the reason for his rescission is the former.
He ought to have come clean that it was the latter that had forced his change of heart.
It was all perplexing. For some reason, folks in the leadership of the political opposition thought it was wise to bloviate to the international media about their plans for the president, a man who had just conceded defeat: 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.
They’d even go as far as bragging that Jammeh had tried to reach out to Barrow but the latter had denied him access. They feared that Jammeh was too cunning that if given an audience he would manage to win himself a deal that would exchange immunity for leaving power: “The President-Elect has refused because his predecessor is so unpredictable,” a senior member of the opposition coalition is quoted telling the Guardian news organisation, before boasting, “There’s no question of immunity.”
Similar stories were published in the aftermath of the election. There were all kinds of “inside reporting” that painted a picture of a besieged Jammeh. In one of the stories, the reporter was certain about the events that transpired on election night.
She wrote how the chiefs of police and army had gone to meet with Jammeh and that they had urged him to ‘prepare for defeat.’ They told him, she said, that he was on his own because ‘the people had spoken.’
He could not count on their support henceforth. Whether such reporting intends to convince that one, Jammeh in this case, is at once a brutal dictator as well as someone who welcomes threats from his subordinates is left hanging.
In her reportage, she even managed to solicit quotes from senior opposition politicians – the government in waiting – who were eager to play along. They are caricatured and they caricature themselves along the way.
I, like most people observing the train-wreck, waited for the voice of reason from the opposition to deny any association with such ‘inside reporting’ and to provide the requisite reassurance.
Nothing. And so, a crisis was birthed. Political immaturity in the form of the strategic inability to manage victory was manifest through a series of tactical blunders. But a different path was possible.
Political maturity would have dictated that if, indeed, there’s reason to ‘move fast’ the rhetoric ought to have quickly shifted to reconciliation programs and calls to all forces to join the new government in forging a united path in efforts geared towards building a country were all Gambians would be proud to all home.
Such a message would have resonated well to both the outgoing government as well as to the thousands of exiles who were driven out of the county over the years.
Or simply promise to ‘move fast’ against poverty. But beyond the tactical errors is a more profound problem. The unforced errors of the political opposition in the Gambia that made them fumble away victory is borne of the inconvenient truth faced by most opposition political parties in Africa: that the people inside their respective countries are not the primary constituency of interest.
This is otherwise known as democracy for the gallery. It is a serious problem facing Africa in its efforts to democratize. As is often the case, the primary constituency is the Western gallery. And so, the opposition in the Gambia was eager to bear fruit to its benefactors, their partners in the fight against “autocratic rule.”
In this haste, the opposition exposed itself to a display in the International mould of youthful exuberance.
But they were not alone. Even their patrons in the West are often rushed to demonstrate to their local constituencies that their work to spread democracy in foreign lands is paying off: government agencies in a rush for vindication that their civic education programs work; NGOs positioning themselves to raise more funds, etc.
In this haste, the opposition often loses most. In the Gambia, they sacrificed the movement. For Jammeh, this was proof that the country was under siege and that the opposition were fifth columnists, stooges of foreign forces. Handing over power to them would be irresponsible. And so, he usurped the responsibility to ‘defend the constitution.’
Who could blame him? This is the signal the opposition was sending out. Now they are rescinding their threats saying that they will not prosecute him. But the adage goes that once the genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back inside.
It was a political own goal. External tampering helped usurp the democratic process from the Gambian people, inadvertently retrenched the ‘dictatorship” they claim intent on fighting, and in so doing usurped power from Adama Barrow.
It also gave rise to a conflictual political environment that could lead to serious violence.
Lonzen Rugira is a columnist with The New Times of Rwanda who has written extensively on political crisis in Africa.