The Biggest Election Surprise of the Year May Actually Be in West Africa
How Gambia’s dictator lost his own election to a former London retail security guard.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh once vowed to rule his country for “one billion years.” He was only 999,999,978 years off. On Friday, Jammeh lost his country’s general election to opposition leader Adama Barrow after 22 years in power.
The defeat comes as a huge shock — not only because an unlikely opposition leader ousted an authoritarian president with a penchant for coups, but also because the president accepted the loss. “It’s really unique that someone who has been ruling this country for so long has accepted defeat,” Gambian electoral commission chief Alieu Momar Njie told reporters.
Barrow earned 45.5 percent of the vote, while Jammeh trailed with 36.7 percent, according to the BBC. The surprise win by an opposition figure — and Jammeh’s even more surprising acceptance of his loss — is a historic moment for the tiny West African nation, which hasn’t had a smooth power transfer since gaining independence in 1965.
Jammeh has ruled Africa’s smallest nation with an iron fist since first wresting power in a coup in 1994. His repressive regime impoverished an already underdeveloped country; the poverty rate that has hovered around 50 percent for years, according to the World Bank. Since taking power, he’s unleashed his security forces to torture, intimidate, arrest, and suppress dissenters to keep his grip on power, according to Human Rights Watch.
Instances of dictators losing their own ‘window dressing’ election are rare. But there was a perfect storm of various factors that turned the tide in Gambian opposition’s favor, said Jeff Smith, founder of Vanguard Africa.
“First, the opposition was unified and energized in a way that they had never been before,” Smith told Foreign Policy. The government’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests in April and May garnered international scrutiny and galvanized various opposition factions. “It was the longest and most defiant act of public disobedience the country witnessed since Jammeh came to power,” Smith said.
Then there’s Europe’s refugee crisis. “Gambia plays an outsized role in the crisis,” Smith said. “It’s the fourth largest ‘exporter’ of refugees to Italy this year, despite being one of Africa’s smallest countries.” This raised Europe’s awareness of the plights of Gambians and ratcheted up international scrutiny on Jammeh’s regime.
And then, there’s the enigmatic dictator himself. Jammeh’s brutal and bizarre antics have drawn an international media spotlight that both enraged his people and energized the opposition over the years. It starts with his public proclamations. He led state-sanctioned ‘witch hunts and threatened to personally slit the throats of gay men in a public speech.
He also isolated Gambia abroad. When he won reelection in 2011 in results that many international observers questioned, he told critics to “go to hell.” In 2013, he withdrew from the Commonwealth, the 54-nation group of former British colonies, after the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office released a report charging Gambia with human rights abuses. Jammeh also pulled Gambia out of the International Criminal Court for alleged bias against African nations; one of his ministers called it the “International Caucasian Court” when explaining the government’s decision to withdraw.
Suffice it to say, Gambians were clearly ready for change. And facing a wave of popular dissent and international pressures, he had to relent.
“Jammeh faced such a surprising groundswell of support for the opposition that they couldn’t fudge the numbers to the point where they could make it credible that they won,” Smith said. That hasn’t stopped dictators before, but international pressure made have tipped the scale, particularly pressure from his own neighborhood of relatively successful West African democracies. “For a number of years, the regional leaders have become fed up with Jammeh,” Smith said. “He’s a black eye on a region that’s performed overwhelmingly well writ large.”
The United States and European Union also made clear an intent to slap sanctions on the country if Jammeh stole the elections again, as did neighboring countries like Senegal, which surrounds the tiny sliver of land that comprises Gambia. This, coupled with a determined and unified opposition, convinced the president to accept his loss.
Jammeh, to defend his dictatorial cred, did try to make things difficult for the opposition as his country headed to the polls. In a classically authoritarian move, his regime banned internet and international phone calls when the country took to the polls. He also barred EU election observers from monitoring the process. But it didn’t deter Gambians from voting him out.
His successor is a relatively new and inexperienced figure in Gambian politics. Adama Barrow is a real estate manager with little government experience (though he was reportedly a former retail store security guard in London before he threw his hat into the ring of Gambian politics.) He wasn’t supposed to be the face of the opposition, but Jammeh threw many other would-be frontrunners in jail. “He was thrust into this position because the leaders of party he’s a member of, the United Democratic Party, are all in prison,” Smith said.
When Barrow takes office, he has a tough road ahead. The first item on the agenda is healing a nation that has suffered a traumatic dictatorship for over two decades. And then there’s the administrative challenges.
“Jammeh ran Gambia as a mafia state,” said Smith. “The state does not exist without him, so there’s a huge void that Barrow has to fill.” He said there’s little economic opportunity but Gambians are hopeful for the change new leadership could usher in.
That void is a particularly deep and bizarre rabbit hole, starting quite simply with Jammeh’s resume. Officially, it painstakingly lists some 80 awards he’s received as president, ranging from the “Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska” (yes, that one is real) to an “Honorary Degree in Herbal and Homeopathic Medicine” from Belgium’s Jean Monnet European University, to the “Most Student Loving and Innovative President in Africa” award to the “Kentucky Colonel Award” from the governor of Kentucky.
Oh, and don’t forget that Jammeh can cure asthma and (at least, he claims) AIDS — but don’t think that makes him a witch. “I am not a witch doctor, and in fact you cannot have a witch doctor. You are either a witch or a doctor,” he said, when his purported medical miracles came to light.
And if titles alone won elections, Jammeh would have clinched a win; his formal title is His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa. (He added Babili Mansa, meaning ‘conqueror of rivers,’ to his title in 2015).
A 2014 coup attempt adds another strange layer to his story. The coup ringleaders were a Texan real estate developer and a Minnesotan computer studies teacher who served 10 years in the U.S. Army. Because of course. The FBI later arrested the two men, both U.S. citizens of Gambian descent.
None of Jammeh’s awards, strange antics, or his ability to dodge coup attempts, curried favor with his people, as the voters showed Friday. It’s an upset few — including Barrow himself — expected. But international scrutiny on the bizarre and brutal dictator may have been the final nail in the coffin of Jammeh’s reign.
“For years, the opposition struggled and put their lives on the line without anyone taking note,” Smith said. But when international media shed light on the Gambian leader, they also brought the plight of his people to light.
“The opposition wouldn’t back down,” Smith said. “This time, they knew the world was watching.”
Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images