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Will Gambia’s Ousted Dictator Influence Its Election?

Yahya Jammeh is still trying to pull the strings in Gambia’s first presidential vote since his fall from power.

Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
A woman walks past a large poster.
A woman walks past a large poster.
A woman walks past a large poster in support of Ousainou Darboe, the main opposition party candidate, in a market in Banjul, Gambia, on Nov. 29, ahead of presidential elections on Dec. 4. GUY PETERSON/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: South Africa outraged by “unacceptable” travel bans, Sudanese and Ethiopian armies clash at the border, and Morocco inks a military deal with Israel.

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Gambia’s Democracy Put to the Test

On Saturday, Africa’s smallest nation, Gambia, holds its first presidential election since it ousted longtime authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh.

Jammeh’s 22-year oppressive reign ended when he was forced from office by the Economic Community of West African States after refusing to step down following defeat in the 2016 election. That historic intervention was seen as a shining example of democracy prevailing.

This week’s election will be a litmus test for Gambia’s democratic transition, said Amat Jeng, a Gambian academic at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Gambia has never had a transition of this nature. Gambia’s first president since its 1965 independence was overthrown in a military coup led by Jammeh in 1994. Yet despite being exiled to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017, Jammeh continues to influence Gambian politics from afar.

“The long arm of the dictator Yahya Jammeh is upsetting the political scene in the Gambia,” Jeng said. Jammeh has endorsed Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC) candidate Mama Kandeh, a former deputy of Jammeh’s ruling party until he formed the GDC and came third in the 2016 election. On Nov. 17, Gambian President Adama Barrow warned his opponent of legal action if Kandeh continued to play audio recordings of Jammeh—who still enjoys support in rural areas—at campaign rallies.

Barrow, a former businessman, was largely unknown until he won the 2016 presidential election due to the backing of an eight-party alliance that opposed Jammeh, whose security forces had been accused of killing and targeting opposition leaders.

But Barrow’s own candidacy is controversial. He vowed to serve a three-year transitional term and not stand in fresh elections. After relations soured with his former party, the United Democratic Party, Barrow formed the National People’s Party in December 2019 as a vehicle for reelection. He’d also pledged to prosecute his predecessor for alleged atrocities but then joined forces with Jammeh’s old party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, in September to consolidate his support base.

That tactical alliance makes it harder to foresee who will win. Some Gambians fear the alliance could also herald Jammeh’s return. “I am not an enemy with Jammeh,” Barrow said at a rally on Saturday urging the former president to accept he is no longer in power and “speak about peace.”

An inquiry into abuses under the ex-ruler concluded on Thursday, nine days before Gambians were due to vote. The Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission’s final report recommended prosecutions for various atrocities, including killings by death squads, torture, and rape. Nearly 400 witnesses testified before the commission, which journalist Ayenat Mersie previewed for Foreign Policy in 2019, warning that “in a country where some victims were also perpetrators, delivering justice to all won’t be easy.”

Although the report was widely welcomed, neither its content nor the names of those recommended for criminal charges were made public. Barrow or his successor will have six months to decide how to respond to the report. So far, Jammeh and members of his regime have not been held accountable. Under Gambian law, a former head of state cannot be prosecuted unless the National Assembly approves the move by a two-thirds majority. Justice for Jammeh’s victims therefore depends on which government comes to power.

The Week Ahead

Wednesday, Dec. 1: The U.S. Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights holds a hearing on the 2022 budget and U.S.-Africa relations.

Thursday, Dec. 2 to Saturday, Dec. 4: The African Economic Conference on financing Africa’s post-COVID-19 development is held in Cape Verde.

Saturday, Dec. 4: Gambia holds presidential elections.

What We’re Watching

Travel bans condemned. As the United States, Europe, and Asia close their borders to travelers from southern Africa, the South African government complained the country was being “punished” for discovering the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the closures had “no scientific justification.” The variant has already spread globally; as of Tuesday, it was present in more than 16 countries.

Health officials have long emphasized that leaving half the world unvaccinated while richer nations hoard 89 percent of vaccine supplies provides an opportunity for dangerous variants to emerge. “We warned that the poorest and most vulnerable would be trampled in the global stampede for vaccines,” a frustrated Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general, said on Monday.

“Failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us,” wrote former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the Guardian. “We were forewarned—and yet here we are.”

The world’s poorest countries, most of which are in Africa, have received just 0.6 percent of the global vaccine supply, according to the WHO. “Instead of prohibiting travel,” Ramaphosa argued, richer nations should support local efforts “to access and manufacture” shots. U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson blamed vaccine hesitancy in South Africa, where authorities have struggled to distribute doses quickly.

That argument obscures the broader picture on access and logistics, however. Research in South Africa has found that white people were more vaccine hesitant than Black people there, but uptake was higher among white people due to better access. Another study found that people in a majority of African nations were more willing to be vaccinated than U.S. citizens.

Ethiopian-Sudan skirmish. According to Sudan’s armed forces, several Sudanese soldiers were killed in an attack on Saturday by Ethiopian forces in the disputed al-Fashqa triangle, a contested border region. Nizar Manek and Mohamed Kheir Omer warned in a November 2020 Foreign Policy article that the area could become a flash point. No details about the death toll were provided, and Ethiopia denied the allegations as “baseless.”

The “Ethiopian Defense Force has no agenda of attacking any sovereign country,” government spokesperson Legesse Tulu said on state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation.

Ethiopian officials have accused Sudan of taking advantage of the conflict in the northern Tigray region to escalate a decadeslong quarrel. Fashqa is a border zone claimed by Sudan but cultivated by Ethiopian farmers from the Amhara region. It also has a border with Tigray, making it strategically significant in the ongoing Ethiopian civil war.

In December 2020, Khartoum sent military reinforcements to Fashqa after Ethiopian forces allegedly ambushed Sudanese troops. In March, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stressed the country “did not want war” with its neighbor.

Meanwhile, Abiy has headed to the front line in an effort to push back Tigrayan rebels, according to images released by the Ethiopian government. In its first major seizure, the army recaptured the town of Chifra in Ethiopia’s Afar region on Sunday, according to state TV. Many nations—including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France—have told their citizens to leave the country.

Al-Shabab bombing. A suicide bombing outside a school in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, on Thursday killed at least eight people and injured 17. It’s the latest in a series of attacks claimed by al-Shabab. A suicide bombing killed Somali journalist Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled, director of government-owned Radio Mogadishu, on Nov. 20.

Somalia’s government regained control of the capital from al-Shabab in 2011 through an African Union peacekeeping mission, known as AMISOM. But that mandate ends on Dec. 31. Although the mission is expected to expand, al-Shabab has been able to capitalize on a drought emergency and recent political disputes, according to security analysts.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Rabat, Morocco, on Nov. 24.
Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Rabat, Morocco, on Nov. 24.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Rabat, Morocco, on Nov. 24.FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

Morocco-Israel agreement. The two countries will begin sharing security intelligence in a deal that could lead to future arms sales and joint military training. The memorandum of understanding was signed last Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco, between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Moroccan counterpart, Abdellatif Loudiyi.

Gantz said the agreement was “very significant and will allow us to exchange ideas, enter joint projects, and enable Israeli military exports here.” Rabat resumed diplomatic relations with Israel under an agreement reached by former U.S. President Donald Trump. In what was widely seen as a quid pro quo, Washington then recognized Morocco’s claim over the disputed Western Sahara territory.

This Week in Culture

Prince William under fire. Britain’s Prince William raised furor among Africans for erroneously suggesting African population growth was to blame for wildlife loss across the continent. “The increasing pressure on Africa’s wildlife and wild spaces as a result of human population presents a huge challenge for conservationists,” he said at an awards ceremony in London last week.

It’s not the first time; William made similar remarks in 2017. The U.K.-based charity Population Matters praised the royal’s words but added, “there’s a wider context.” The group’s director, Robin Maynard, noted that the U.K. is “also driving habitat destruction as forests are cleared for crops to feed U.K. and European livestock.”

William has three children himself, and his comments implying Africans should decrease their birthrates were widely criticized as being racist and hypocritical. When it comes to broader environmental impacts, a 2020 study by Oxfam found that the average British person emits more carbon in five days than the average Rwandan emits in an entire year.

Stolen artifacts returned. U.S. officials said more than 900 artifacts, some dating back several millennia, were returned to Mali last week. The stolen items were confiscated by U.S. Homeland Security officials in 2009, when U.S. customs agents intercepted a suspicious container that arrived in Houston’s port. Among the items were funeral urns, ceremonial vessels, and axe heads from the Neolithic era.

“A nation’s cultural property and antiquities define who they are as a people,” investigator Mark Dawson, who oversaw the case, said in a statement on Nov. 22. “No one has the right to loot or destroy that heritage and history.” The container originated from Mali with papers claiming objects were replicas, but upon inspection and after research by Susan McIntosh, a Rice University anthropology professor, the items appeared to be authentic.

Chart of the Week

New COVID-19 variant omicron has at least 50 mutations that, taken together, may render it “very different” from the original strain. Data is still scarce. South Africa, where omicron was first identified, has a better vaccination rate than most African countries.

What We’re Reading

Illegal trafficking network in Ivory Coast. Young Ghanaians were promised jobs in Dubai and France for fees as high as 8,000 cedis (around $1,300) paid to illegal traffickers. But the victims ended up trapped in the Ivory Coast and forced to recruit others in a scam called QNet, which lures young people across western Africa, according to an investigation by Ghana’s the Fourth Estate. Ghana’s attorney general, Godfred Yeboah Dame, petitioned to dissolve QNet, calling it “akin to a Ponzi scheme.”

Farmer-herder conflict complicated by extortion. In northwest Nigeria, farmers and herders face a choice between paying armed gangs a regular fee or being attacked while working. In one incident in June, terrorists shot and killed more than 50 people in different farming communities in Zamfara state for refusing to pay the 12 million naira (about $29,000) asked of them. Herders are also being killed and robbed of their cattle. Conflict in Nigeria is starving people as Nigerians are forced to abandon their farms and cattle, according to a HumAngle Media report.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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