Democracy Versus Dictatorship: How Yahya Jammeh Can Avoid Reenacting The Battle Of Marathon In The Gambia

By Ayodele Ameen, Executive Director, HURIDAC

The political impasse in the Gambia has attracted the inputs of many commentators with different interpretation of the unfolding events.

Outgoing President Yahya Jammeh has decided not to relinquish power despite the result of the election which he lost. Many political analysts and mind readers have continued to allude to many reasons for his action and possible consequences the same action may attract. On the other hand, the in-coming president Adama Barrow has continued to assure the nation that he will be sworn- on the day that the tenure of the outgoing president expire possibly January 19th. Does this presuppose that we are approaching a political crescendo whereby there will be two presidents in the Gambia this year? The Regional body ECOWAS with its zero tolerance for unconstitutional leadership in the region has already committed to an agreement that weigh heavily towards military action if mediation fails.

So far mediation has been elusive, as the deadline of January 19th approaches and with Jammeh sharpening its military arsenals by committing its military to stand by him, possibly hiring mercenaries and interpreting ECOWAS action as an act of war pushes one to move towards the understanding that we may experience another battle of Marathon in the Gambia.

The battle of Marathon comparison is not actually in the compatibility of the aggressor but in the similitude of an attack against democracy. At this period in 490 BC the Persian power have conquered many empires, victories are synonymous to their name, they were ruthless in their attacks and merciless in their conquest. Knowing about the Greek political system that anchored more on the democratic process of making decisions collectively to run the state.

In this process Athenians usually came together and discussed issues that affected them and they vote on each decisions taken. Though this democratic system was slightly different from what we have today, because it excluded women and slaves. This system made the Persian ruler or dictator to be furious, this system of democratic process was interpreted by the Persians as symptom of weakness by any ruler , it could not tolerate the democratic process rather than allowing it to continue to exist. He set out with his Army not primarily to take over Athens but majorly to conquer democracy.

The Athenians, though inexperience militarily, but equipped with the democratic open space discussion and they mobilized ideas and adopted a military strategy. The power against the Athenians were massive, out-armed and out-numbered by the Persian. The Athenians unknowingly to them at this period that they were not only trying to defend their country but they were defending and protecting democracy for the larger world. They met at a town called Marathon, an outskirt of Athens. The military strategy of the Athenians was to weaken the front line and allow the Persians to delve in easily and then the srongest of their forces came from the side and enveloped the Persians and squeeze them to death; 6000 Persians lost their lives in battle and only 200 Athenians died.

The remnant Persians forces got on their boat to get to Athens by sea and take over the city before the victorious Athenians soldiers could get there, the Soldiers ran 22 miles from Marathon to Athens with their arms to protect their city, this race is what is known today as the Olympic Marathon.

The battle and zeal to defend and protect democracy in the Gambia has no close alternatives or options, just like the battle of Marathon, if the Gambians and its regional partners loose this battle or fail to protect democracy, Gambia may not see democracy for decades. This is the thought that need deepening, but before that let us analyze Jammeh’s actions, options and alternatives before him.

The outgoing President Yahya Jammeh has been in power for the past 22 years , he has won about five elections within this period, though he started as a military head of state and later converted to a civilian president using the same democracy which he is trying to scuttle. Having been in power that long, Jammeh never believed he will lose any election in the Gambia. Of course, he strongly believed that his party strong footing in the Gambian political landscape is a guarantee for political victory, but he failed to take into cognizance, new development in the landscape, he failed to factor in how the new coalition of the opposition party will affect him and his ambition and also the change in demographic component of new youth voting for the first , using the social media as vehicle of information, in which Jammeh is very weak.

It is totally immoral and un-presidential for Jammeh to fail to protect the credibility of the system that has supported him for 22 years , as a stateman Jammeh has a moral responsibility to send a clear message to the Gambian people that their ‘votes count’ and affirming in clear terms that the credibility of the presidency the highest post in the country lies with the Gambian people.

It was clear that when he first conceded defeat there were few accolades, but lots of condemnation that Gambia is free from his ‘rule of fear’ which hunt him, but let’s hold on, what does he expect from people he has terrorized for 22 years and ruled with fear?

But in the final analyses public opinion may at some point give him a bit of credit in the anal of history -if he hands over peacefully- not only as the president that ensures smooth transfer of power to the incoming president, but the first president to do so in the Gambia. It is also not presidential in the region for Jammeh to fight this, when you have a region affected by the wave of opposition victory, from Sierra Leone to Nigeria and to Ghana and others to follow, your position to entrench yourself in power unconstitutionally will be unpopular in the region.

The political configuration in the Gambia also played a major role in the outcome of the election. The ruling APRC have had a free unchallenged lead in the Gambia political landscape , not only because it is the president party , but also because there have been no major opposition to challenge its leadership.

Before now the opposition has had constant divisions and crises that make them politically unfit to mount a challenge. But this change last year with the Daboe’s factor, the imprisonment of Darboe and other leaders of the UDP provided two opportunities for the political class, one it provided the platform to agitate and vent their angers towards the ruling government, secondly, it allows the most ordinary people to feel a sense of passion to join them in demonstrating at every court sittings.

This in-turn produces new political patronage and support for the opposition, they could for the first time see as the magnitude of the opposition support grows and this make them confident that their support can actually make a different, they started the process of breaking the yoke of silence and challenged the rule of fear.

Thirdly, it provided the needed platform for the opposition to galvanized their anger towards the government, but inject this anger in rallying, building and consolidating a strong opposition political front as a coalition. The coalition that looked fragile after the electoral victory was solidified with Jammeh backtracking on his initial ‘conceding of victory’.

This remains a political suicide mission for Jammeh , of course he is a common enemy to most of the political leaders, he has humiliated them, tortured them and treated them in the most demeaning manner. But most of the opposition leaders strongly believed that the electoral victory is an ‘independent’ that liberated the country. They are more interested in how to move forward and who get ‘what’ in the new government.

What they will do to Jammeh when in power was still an afterthought and they are mostly focused on forgetting that phase of Gambia history. It now becomes extremely difficult for Jammeh to escape unhurt politically, having made them struggle to take over power peacefully. It is important to note that the regional body role of mediating and giving an olive hand to Jammeh to step down and leave the country to diffuse the climate of fear and in-turn get some forms of immunity and protection from prosecution from past crime was a missed opportunity for Jammeh, which he will regret in months or years to come.

The legality of Jammeh’s option cannot be over emphasized, it is crystal clear that the legality of Jammeh’s action is extremely weak. Also the legal parameters set up by his government failed to rescue him.

It is totally impossible for a judicial system to take a. twist overnight, if you invest heavily in ensuring that your judicial system is weak, ineffective and corrupt, you cannot expect the same system after 22 years to suddenly be effective because you now need it for your rescue mission.

The Supreme court has been made redundant since 2015, intentionally to frustrate appeals to the court. However the wisdom of the constitution bestow the power to decide electoral appeal to the supreme court. When President Jammeh decided to reject the result of the election, his only hope is the supreme court. A petition challenging the result of the presidential election needs to be submitted within ten days after the declaration of the said result. Though the constitution was silence on whether the limitation as per numbers of days is ten working days or just ten days. If it is just ten ordinary days, the petition is out of time, but if it is ten working days the petition is just at the edge.

But this is less of Jammeh worries, more importantly is the provision of the constitution that the submitted petition must be disposed-off by the supreme court within thirty days. This is a bigger problem as the country failed to appoint judges to the supreme court or make the supreme court sit to hear the case. All the above factors make legal solution to the problem as a non-option.

It is quite unfortunate for Jammeh and a fortune for Gambian people, that, the ECOWAS regional body picked interest in the political crises in the Gambia in accordance with its principle on democracy and good governance and its zero tolerance for unconstitutional rule in the region. ECOWAS has vow to match Jammeh use of force to remain in power with superior force to remove him from power.

The odds is against Jammeh, this will be a similitude of reenacting the battle of Marathon in the Gambia, first, Jammeh military force is limited, even though he can raise additional unconventional forces, such as mercenaries, but once the battle starts, it will be difficult to raise additional force, whereas ECOWAS has access to pool of forces from his member states depending on the intensity of the battle.

Second, the loyalty of Gambian army is in doubt knowing fully well that Jammeh lost the election in most of the barracks, though Jammeh close military allies, bodyguards, military chief, and mercenaries will defend Jammeh, but information coming from the rank and file of the military shows that while the Gambian army are loyal to the state, they don’t equate that loyalty to defending Jammeh unconstitutional interest. The ECOWAS forces are so loyal to their state and to the mission.

Thirdly, while members state of ECOWAS are fully behind the community, The Gambian people are totally detached from Jammeh’s ambition to remain in power at all cost. It becomes clear that ECOWAS has massive advantage over Jammeh. A Jammeh without a strong force, without a loyal military and without the Gambian people on his side will lose this battle massively and this loss will not only be victory for democracy but a clear signal for other remaining dictators that electoral victory supersedes any military might.

To avoid this battle ECOWAS needs to rely on ‘hope’ that their mediation will work with few days to go. It is very unlikely, for Jammeh to avoid this battle he only needs ‘compliance’ to Gambian Constitution and hand over power to the president elect. However, if Jammeh decides to continue this act of war path ‘democracy’ will triumph over dictatorship, as it did many years ago, in the battle of Marathon.


One Comment

  1. Even without external military intervention, Jammeh knows he will be removed from office (even if it take for ever!) – hence his earlier diatribe against Mandinkas! . Never ever underestimate Gambians: they are a resilient people!