Whatever other speculations about the consequence of Yahya Jammeh’s return to the Gambia might be, it is, without doubt, a reinforcement of the position of dictators in Africa… This unholy alliance between Adama Barrow, who publicly stated that hypocrisy defines democracy, and Jammeh, who demonstrated that the purpose of power is to destroy institutions, is the foundation of what may end up as the greatest calamity to befall The Gambia since 1965.

Africa, a continent noted for its immense natural wealth and potentials — symbolised by vast arable lands, precious minerals, and a young vibrant population — has failed to fully utilise these assets in achieving progressive socio-economic transformation, after more than sixty years of self-rule. One central reason identified for this misfortune is the prevalent cases of bad leadership. Except for a few occasions of exemplary stewardship from the likes of Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, and John Kufuor, Africa’s post-independence leadership history has comprised a litany of sit-tight despotic and kleptocratic regimes — both military and civilian. This tragedy of Africa’s leadership situation is even more apparent when one considers that about half-a-century or so ago, the indigenous political forces of the then nascent African nation-states rallied around the ideals of freedom, equality, and good governance to protest the injustice of colonial rule and demand independence.

The unfortunate post-independence tradition of tyrannical leadership in Africa has followed a pattern whereby after independence, a charismatic figure from a politically (sometimes numerically) dominant ethnic group of a typical multi-ethnic post-colonial African state becomes president and assumes complete control of economic and political powers through a network of patrimonial/client-patron relationships, and the use of the state’s instruments of coercion. Firmly in place, such leader then initiates constitutional reforms, which accord him extensive powers and provide a cover of legitimacy for undemocratic draconian practices. Consequently, protests from politically and, most times, numerically less privileged ethnocultural groups, who are alienated and subjected to deprivation and abuse through the self-perpetuating intrigues of the incumbent, provide the basis for a military coup (take-over), the only other means (after death) of changing such sit-tight leaders.

With military governments, the experience is also mostly similar. Taking a leaf from the ousted dictator’s book, the “interim” military government promises to hand over power after righting the political mess of the ousted government. As such, it schedules transition/handover dates that are repeatedly post-postponed until such a time when its head can, with some confidence, arrange for a transition process — complete with a constitutional coup — that guarantees his/her emergence as president. Such a government, with its military background and extensive constitutional powers, becomes nearly impossible to replace through the ballot. It deploys every option available to remain in power, and even when, by some chance, it loses at the ballot, it voids the election.

However, from the 1990s, Africa has recorded significant transformations in the political systems of many of its countries. These changes involved the collapse of several military and civilian dictatorships, as well as the emergence of rule-of-law-based governments, such as South Africa’s non-racial democracy. Notwithstanding these (democratic) gains though, many countries in Africa have continued to struggle with deepening and institutionalising democracy. As such, there is yet very little check on governmental impunity, especially in the areas of the abuse of executive powers and human rights violations.

At the far left are countries like Togo, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, and until recently, the Gambia, which are still under the despotic regimes of sit-tight “leaders.” These countries have remained notorious for their hostile political environments, economic hardship, poor records of human rights, and the ever-present threat of conflict. They not only symbolise the reversal to Africa’s blossoming democratic culture, but also stand as an inspiration for other despotic ambitions yet laying fallow. As constant reminders that Africa still faces the possibility of sliding back to the pre-1990s levels of authoritarianism, the event of a political transition in any of these countries mentioned above represents hope; as another vital step away from Africa’s leadership albatross.

As civilian president, Yahya Jammeh ruled the Gambia with an iron fist. His reign of terror was enacted through a litany of draconian laws and anti-people policies that infringed on the people’s rights to information, expression, and interaction. Typical of a brutal authoritarian regime, Jammeh’s government sought to control information coming in and going out of The Gambia.

One country in which recent political developments best capture this patent threat to Africa’s democratic gains is The Gambia. A small, English-speaking, West African country with at least ten different ethnic groups, The Gambia (named after the Gambia River) gained its independence from Britain in 1965. And in the more than five decades of independent existence, it has had only three presidents! The Gambia’s venture into what has become a long and perilous post-independence leadership history began with the tenure of Dawda Jawara, the country’s first president who went on to rule for almost three decades between 1965 and 1994. Under Dawda Jawara, the country was, for all appearances, a liberal democracy. The political atmosphere was, in principle, one of competitive politicking, complete with regular elections into five-year tenures. However, it was a one-party monopoly state, where power was centered around the dominant figure of President Jawara and his People’s Progressive Party (PPP).

With monopoly control over government resources and a dictatorial communications regulation policy, the president’s party maintained an undue advantage over the opposition, which was left weak and in constant danger of being declared subversive. Jawara’s government also imposed strict restrictions on the civil society and the activities of political organisations. It was embroiled in numerous allegations of misconduct, including vote-buying, intimidation of the opposition, and election tampering. And with no limit set for terms, Dawda Jawara was able to perpetuate himself in office as president of the Gambia for over thirty years, until the Yahya Jammeh-led military coup of 1994.

Twenty-nine-year-old Yahya Jammeh, a lieutenant officer and leader of the Armed Forces Provisional Council (AFPC), seized power through a bloodless coup d’état in 1994. Having assumed control, Jammeh, as military dictator (1994-1996), set out to consolidate his power. Beginning with a suspension of the constitution, Jammeh went ahead to round up and detain some of his superiors in the military. He also placed Jawara’s ministers under house arrest, banned political activities, and announced a four-year transition period to democratic civilian rule. The four-year transition period was later reviewed and reduced to two years in January 1995 by the National Consultative Committee (NCC). In April, three months after, a Constitutional Review Commission was established. The resultant constitution, which was drawn up to accentuate Jammeh’s economic and political power, allowed for multi-party elections, a limitless number of five-year tenures, and the president’s authority to appoint judges directly. Then, Jammeh tactfully retired from the military at the rank of colonel, just a month before the presidential election of September 1996. He contested the election and was declared winner by an electoral commission of his own selection.

As civilian president, Yahya Jammeh ruled the Gambia with an iron fist. His reign of terror was enacted through a litany of draconian laws and anti-people policies that infringed on the people’s rights to information, expression, and interaction. Typical of a brutal authoritarian regime, Jammeh’s government sought to control information coming in and going out of The Gambia. It reduced state-owned communication networks (both television and radio) to government (Jammeh’s) propaganda outlets and moved to suppress the “independent” press by enacting laws that undermined their operations. Some of these laws included the 1994 Newspaper Act (reviewed again in 2004), which made it mandatory for owners of news agencies to pay expensive yearly registration fees; the National Media Communication Act, which required journalists to divulge confidential information to the police and judicial authorities; and the 2004 Criminal Code (Amendment) Bill, which stipulated prison terms for defamation and sedition.

Following the enactment of these laws, there were several attacks on the country’s independent press and its personnel. As the years passed and Jammeh successfully influenced the outcome of election after election, his hold over The Gambia grew even more resolute. With the aid of armed groups like the defunct “Green Boys,” some state security agencies such as the Police Intervention Unit of the Gambian’s police force, the Serious Crimes Unit, and the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Jammeh enacted his diabolic reign of terror. Individuals and journalists who criticised his government were picked up and taken to undisclosed locations, never to be heard from again. Before long, it became a practice for Jammeh’s rivals at the polls to seek refuge outside the country. Yahya Jammeh gradually reduced The Gambia to his personal fiefdom and started to equate any criticism of his person to sedition, thereby disturbing the nation’s peace.

…one could only imagine the amount of shock and disbelief that greeted the news that Yahya Jammeh has formed some coalition with the incumbent president, with the possibility of a return to The Gambia from exile in Equatorial Guinea. Is there even a small chance of this materialising barely four years after his removal? Where is the justice for Jammeh’s victims? 

After a botched coup attempt in 2006, Jammeh became even more resolute in his oppressive strategies against the Gambian populace. People were jailed without trial, there were allegations of extrajudicial killings, and journalists disappeared without trace. Famous amongst his victims were the April 2000 massacred students; the over fifty West African migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Senegal murdered by the NIA; the one thousand Gambian citizens arrested and tortured on allegations of witchcraft; journalists Deyda Hydara and Ebrima Manneh; and the casualties of Jammeh’s fictitious HIV/AIDS cure. There were also allegations of rape, embezzlement, and cases of summary detentions for indefinite periods. By and large, Yahya Jammeh became a symbol of all that was wrong with democracy in Africa.

Hence, when in 2017, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its member countries decided to defend the outcome of The Gambia’s presidential election of that period, the action was welcomed across Africa as a win for democracy and a move towards the future of respectable and responsible leadership in Africa. To all supporters of democracy, another ruthless dictator had been removed, which was a cause to celebrate, and the celebrations were heard even beyond the shores of The Gambia and Africa.  

Therefore, one could only imagine the amount of shock and disbelief that greeted the news that Yahya Jammeh has formed some coalition with the incumbent president, with the possibility of a return to The Gambia from exile in Equatorial Guinea. Is there even a small chance of this materialising barely four years after his removal? Where is the justice for Jammeh’s victims? What is the message being communicated to other dictatorial regimes and ambitions? What does this portend for the future of democracy in Africa? Should donor agencies continue to support the current government in The Gambia? These and other issues haunt the minds of serious Africans. For the Gambian people, on whose behalf I am writing, the horror that this bodes can be imagined. With the memories yet fresh and the inquisitions having not yielded the whole truth, whatever faith the people have in the principles of democracy and government stands a good chance of being lost forever, which can also produce a multiplier effect in other African countries.

Whatever other speculations about the consequence of Yahya Jammeh’s return to the Gambia might be, it is, without doubt, a reinforcement of the position of dictators in Africa. Apart from the fact that a Jammeh return would undermine all the democratic efforts and gains already recorded in the Gambia, there is a chance of a Jammeh revenge campaign that can spark off deadly conflicts between pro- and anti-Jammeh factions. The fragility of ethnic divisions will escalate into full-blown hostilities. About this “second coming” for Yahya Jammeh, Africa must have a rethink, especially for the sake of the long-suffering Gambian people and for the future of peace and democracy in Africa. This unholy alliance between Adama Barrow, who publicly stated that hypocrisy defines democracy, and Jammeh, who demonstrated that the purpose of power is to destroy institutions, is the foundation of what may end up as the greatest calamity to befall The Gambia since 1965.

Toyin Falola, a professor of History and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, is Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin.

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