Is Gambia Reaching The Political Breaking Point?


By Dr Ebrima Ceesay

For many years now, the Gambian situation has been deteriorating, but in recent months, it has in fact, worsened. After several years of economic decline, the situation in the Gambia is becoming too desperate and unsustainable. Therefore, important questions to be asked are: Is the Gambia reaching the political breaking point? Could the killing of Ebrima Solo Sendeng, the incarceration of Ousainou Darboe and Jammeh’s continued threats against Mandinkas and Christians have finally provided the tipping point that will bring to an end the unhappy period of Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year old mis-rule? The Gambia’s political crisis appears to be building up to some kind of dramatic climax. This Presidential Election, it seems to me, will represent a tipping point for the future direction of the Gambia.

Indeed, the Gambia appears to be moving closer towards this important watershed and transformational tipping point. The Gambia is now at that point when people no longer have nothing to lose, as the tough and difficult times have forced many of them into developing a courageous mind-set: having now developed the strength of mind to carry on, in spite of the possible dangers they may face. Discontent with Jammeh’s regime continues to grow and the powers of citizenry should not be underestimated.

Jammeh’s heavy-handedness is accelerating Gambia’s predisposition to political instability. The Gambia is now a relatively young country, where the median (or average) age is about 25 years. Young people constitute about half of the population, and the rate of unemployment among young people in the country is high. The evidence suggests that there is a systematic marginalization and neglect of our youths and history teaches us that there is often a link between unemployment trends and political instability everywhere and in Africa. As such, inept leadership and continued bad governance in our country are a recipe for an explosive red alert situation. The Gambia’s current political environment has been characterized by negative polarization, thanks to Jammeh’s ineptitude.

The Gambia’s enviable record of peaceful co-existence among different ethnic and religious groups, since 1965, appears to be under threat. With less than two weeks to go before the country goes to the polls on 1st December 2016, many disturbing irregularities in the electoral process are being reported. Therefore, the prospects for a disputed election result and political violence are growing and needless to say, the coalition will not accept the result of a rigged election. This election could well be marred by violence, likely to be fueled by allegations of electoral fraud, election manipulation, or vote rigging.

A Jammeh “re-election” will represent another dark hour in our history. If Jammeh “wins”, Gambians should brace themselves and prepare for more repression, as “victory” will definitely embolden him. He’ll see “victory” as a “renewed mandate” to continue his brutality on the people. Knowing Jammeh, there will be nothing conciliatory about him after the election. His government is likely to respond with even more repression. Yet, it is also clear, and political seismologists will agree, that the Gambia could well be approaching a period of political instability. Indeed, the Gambia is likely to descent into political instability, with post-election violence (and tragedy) becoming more and more inevitable, as the country continues to be plagued by deep wounds and divisions.

These three scenarios may play out after the election if President Jammeh “wins”. Scenario No 1: Jammeh, we all know, has come from a tradition of heavy-handedness, ruthlessness and demagoguery. In fact, he feels entitled to power. He won’t change, as long as the people continue to lack courage and be “fearful” of him. Free speech and dissent would be restricted; systematic torture and death in custody will continue to be a regular occurrence. In sum, if he remains in power, repression and restrictions on freedom of assembly will continue and economically, the Gambia will get worse.

Scenario No 2: Prolonged unrest or instability in the country. Given Jammeh’s mercilessness and stubbornness, violence appears imminent. The Gambia is not immune to social unrest. Challenging the status quo requires courage, but it seems to me the culture of fear is being overcome gradually. In fact, it was Henry Cloud who said that “the people will change their behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing”. The repression, which has become the norm in the Gambia under Jammeh, is no longer sustainable. We now appear to be reaching a moment of truth and the critical point, where something has to give. Every society eventually reaches a tipping point and the Gambia appears to be nearly there. Jammeh has no idea about what is actually brewing just beneath the surface, because his arrogance has continued to blind him.

Yet, something is very close. The chilly winds of change may be blowing. Everywhere you look in the country, you see frustration and disappointment with his regime. Everyone is indignant and resentful of Yahya Jammeh. Anger abounds in the country. As Jammeh continues to miscalculate and misread the Gambian situation, the amount of anger and frustration percolating under the surface, in our nation, has continued to grow with each passing day.  If he “wins”, he will continue his winner-takes-all system and political exclusion. Yet, it seems to me that repression and political exclusion, after the election, will no doubt sow the seeds for subsequent instability in the country. Therefore, are these signs of an impending regime change in the Gambia: the long-awaited change of government? Only God knows. Time will tell.

Scenario No 3: The election could force Jammeh to open up the political space, as more Gambians are now speaking out for political, economic and social rights, and demanding greater accountability from their government. Consequently, the post-election period could well start the process of democratic opening and political liberalization in the Gambia.

However, at this present time, given my own lengthy acquaintance with, and personal knowledge of, the leadership of President Jammeh, my instincts tell me that the Gambia is stuck somewhere between scenarios No 1 and No 2. If Jammeh “wins” the election, the country will never be the same again, as the political landscape in country has seriously split. The divisions are in fact, widening. If he “wins”, there will be inevitably, a political power struggle between Jammeh and the people, as he would be trying to use his “victory” to gain even more political power to continue repression. Yet, it seems to me that the Gambian people are now ready and determined to put an end to the worst of this brutal repression. Consequently, social unrest could crop up naturally, as the foundation is there. The Gambia could well be facing its most difficult, sour and desperate period yet.

Although Jammeh has had the advantage of controlling state apparatus like security and the state media, if ever he is faced with a largely non-violent protest movement, and he uses excessive or lethal force, his action will only act as a spur to the Gambian people and the opposition, who have now reached a point of no return.

“Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” ― Tony Robbins


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