The Gambia is a former British colony and is also called the gateway of West Africa. It is also known as the ‘The Smiling Coast of Africa’ because of her peaceful nature and the many decades of cultural, religious and ethnic tolerance. The country’s population is less than two million inhabitants and the country is surrounded by Senegal on three sides; north, south, and east and by the Atlantic Ocean in the West . The Gambia gained her independence in 1965. Since then we only had two presidents. The first President was Dawda Kairaba Jawara who ruled for almost thirty years (1965 to 1994). His government was later overturned in a military coup in 1994 by lieutenant Yahya Jammeh who ruled the Gambia for 22 years until he lost the first ever democratic elections in December 2016. In the past there have been elections as well but there were countless complaints and evidences of fraud and government interferences. This resulted in strict responses of the international community and in some cases a boycott by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). What makes this past election remarkably important?
Life before the elections
President Jammeh has ruled the Gambia for years as a dictator. As I am born in the Gambia, it is my home and my Motherland. For me it was unimaginable to think of my country, “The Smiling Coast”, as the homeland of a tyrant. But on the other hand it should not surprise me since I have lived for years under the dictatorship of Jammeh. Especially at university it became clear that there was no freedom of speech in my country. When we were debating during classes, we had to watch our back because people might be recording our sessions. This could lead to arrests, kidnapping or even the killing of students. This was the kind of life we had to go through in the Gambia.
Back home in the Gambia, you could smell the bitter and genuine concerns expressed by Gambians. You felt that people were stressed and concerned about the situation. People were living in fear as there were random arrests, killings, poverty and no future perspectives. The government acted as if it owned the country, declaring the Gambia an Islamic state, promoting tribal hatred and division and starting to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. Needless to say it was indeed a government by the gun, not the compromise.
Elections of new hope
With all these criminality and barbarous acts, Gambians endured and waited patiently for the rise of the sun. Before the elections, there were two major political parties: The Alliance Patriotic Reconciliation and Construction (APRC), led by president Jammeh, and the United Democratic Party (UDP). A few months before the elections, the main opposition leader of the UDP got arrested, detained and later charged. He was send to prison because his party members organized protests and the government saw that as illegal. Most of the people who took part in that protest were beaten, arrested, detained and some were even send to the notorious prison centre in the Gambia called “Mile 2.” The prison the former president calls his ‘Five-Star Hotel’. As the election approached and all the other parties started campaigning, the APRC party was not taking this election as a major threat. In fact, when Yahya Jammeh was interviewed by the BBC, he said he was not going to campaign because he had nothing to lose. Meanwhile all the other parties decided to work together against the incumbent and they nominated Adama Barrow of the UDP as their leader.
The unified parties got massive support from Gambians in and out of the country. As they came to work together the social media campaign grew bigger each day and Gambians in exile were even raising funds to support the party. Interestingly, Adam Barrow, the head of the coalition was barely known before he gained popularity during the elections. As a successful businessman and CEO he had never held any political office and was mainly the treasurer of the UDP. It was a great campaign.
Yes. The Gambia Must Smile Again. We won, the people! The Gambia has decided. Jammeh Must Go. All these slogans were echoed out!
In a speech the incumbent president Jammeh accepted his defeat and congratulated president elect Adama Barrow. Unfortunately, the celebration ended abruptly when a week later Jammeh shifted and declared that he wanted new elections and he would not accept Barrow as the next president of the Gambia. This made the whole nation shake. The international community began to put pressure on Jammeh and Senegal our neighbouring country, stood by the Gambian results and even called for an emergency United Nation General Assembly meeting.
All the efforts to try and convince Jammeh were in vain and he kept on claiming that he would not step down. Meanwhile Barrow was taken to Senegal and from there he stated that Jammeh should step down and soldiers should go back to their houses. He declared Jammeh’s government as a rebel government. In the end, there was political deadlock and the whole country including children, youth, men and women fled to Senegal and Guinea Bissau.
Finally Jammeh was given an ultimatum by the international community and last minute negotiations forced him to leave the country for Equatorial Guinea.
The Gambia is now a free country at last the new government promised freedom for all Gambians. The birth of a new nation. In today’s Gambia, we hope that critical voice will not be silenced and Gambians in exile can return home without any further threat. We hope that the international community will help the Gambia establish strong institutions over men who seeks vengeance or power. We must not allow the past to repeat itself. Those who lost loved ones must be provided with answers and political prisoners must be released. It is time for a whole new country to rise.