We’ve all been hoping for a change of government for years now. Ideally, it would be a peaceful, democratic transition. But really, any form of change would be welcome by many. Some even hope for a violent event, a sacudón. And the geeks like me have invested some time reading about past toppled dictatorships, watching movies like No, the Otpor! documentaries, and -for the real intensos- reading Gene Sharp. All of which is why it was so fascinating for me when Emi called me up and told me to take a look at what was going on in Gambia.

There’s no possible way a long-time military dictator of an African nation would run for elections unless he had rigged every inch of them, right? Well, apparently something fell through the cracks for Yayha Jammeh, who had been ruling Gambia with the proverbial iron fist since he took power via coup d’etat in 1994, until his electoral defeat to Adama Barrow on December 1st.

Oh, and let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Gambian people, quite apart from voting through the usual ballots, voted by putting marbles into drums marked for each candidate.

Which is still no big deal. Dictators have lost elections before. All they have to do is switch the numbers, or claim there’s been some sort of fraud, or throw someone in jail. You know, dictator stuff. But Mr. Jammeh shocked the world by acknowledging the results. In his words:

I take this opportunity to congratulate Mr Adama for his victory. It’s a clear victory. I wish him all the best and I wish all Gambians the best. As a true Muslim who believes in the almighty Allah I will never question Allah’s decision. You Gambians have decided.

Now let me emphasize here: a dictator of over 20 years lost an election and acknowledged the results. Think of what this means for all who, like us, live under a dictatorship. Think about the implications for those who want a peaceful transition into a Democracy. It’s a much needed glimmer of hope.

Or, it ought to have been…

Because one week after the initial concession, Jammeh took it all back. Rejecting the results, he demanded the whole country vote again.

In his words:

I announce to you, Gambians, my total rejection of the election results and thereby annulling the elections in its entirety. We will go back to the polls because I want to make sure that every Gambian has voted under an independent electoral commission that is independent, neutral and free from foreign influence

The country is in complete turmoil now, not knowing who will be President, whether they have to vote again, or just what will happen.

I really wish I wasn’t writing this. All I wanted was to show our readers a little hope from a far-off land. But the truth is neither good nor bad, lo que no tiene es remedio.

I know some of you will take this as the cue to launch a fresh anti-democratic rant, and I can’t blame you. The fact is that, in Gambia, votes aren’t enough to topple a dictator. Whatever that means for us. Which, I hope, is very little.


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  1. This post is a bit confusing. I am also not sure you read about what the dictator is saying next:


    I am a bit apprehensive when people keep talking about this Gene Sharp. For the one movement that claimed to have succeeded mostly based on his ideas – that in Serbia – there are several dozens that
    have failed miserably and there is the Ukrainian one that would probably have ended in the messy situation now with or without those groups trying to do “the Sharp thing”.

    We can and must learn from past processes but above all we need to learn is how we – whoever we are – are different from those processes.

    When I read every so many months in this blog about our “Prague moment arriving” I can only ask for caution. I can still show you the letters I got from friends in the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia from 1985, 1988, 1989. Things were so different there at so many levels and we do not seem to remember that.

    One of the things we need to examine and act upon – after really an open discussion – is what is the general state of mind of the mid-ranking people in power and the different military groups. What do they think about their children? About what they have to lose? What are the resentments and fears that move them? How can we convince them that the change is inevitable and it is needed as soon as possible?

    I think of what Herrera Luque wrote way back in the sixties about the psychopatic burder we have. I used to think his views were old-fashioned but after talking to a friend who is a neurologist studying psychiatry now I am not so sure.

    • What is useful I think to people who are struggling for positive change in Venezuela is to look at what has worked in the past, and what has not worked. History teaches important lessons. You may be skeptical about Venezuela resembling any past precedents, but I can tell you that the people who are in charge of Venezuela do not share such skepticism. History has taught important lessons to autocrats, who from Cuba, Iran, Russia and so on share common strategies and techniques to suppress opposition. There is international expertise in the art of suppressing democratic dissent. I suggest that there is useful knowledge and experience also on how to successfully oppose oppression.

      Yes, Czechoslovakia was a very different country from Venezuela. As are Poland and Romania, South Africa, Mexico, India. All countries where opposition movements have unseated various forms of dictatorship. Oppression takes similar forms, and successful opposition to it does also.

      The idea that Venezuela is unique and that unique considerations apply to its governance is fundamentally an idea of Chavismo which has preached the doctrine of Venezuela’s uniqueness, that it is unlike any other country in the world, and that the normal rules of economics, politics and history do not apply. It has been a chavista delusion: the rules do not apply to us. Now, with everything collapsed, there is a similar delusion – call it a delusion of despair: we are not like any country that has thrown off an oppressor. We can’t do it like they did it. Venezuelans are just so different in so many ways. The regime is so powerful in so many unique ways.

      I welcome thoughts about how to get into the heads of mid ranking military but frankly, I do not see pandering to the military, which is where some people see hope for success, as being the lever that has worked in regimes that have been toppled by democratic movements (as opposed to simply being toppled in a military coup leading to something similar or worse). Hugo Chavez got into the heads of mid ranking officers. Look where that got us.

      Regimes are toppled when they are deprived of the resources to function. When the people discover that they collectively control the productive, administrative, and organizational means by which the regime operates, and they withdraw those services or otherwise disrupt them, on a mass scale. And where there is a viable alternative, organized, resilient, having a plan, ready to fill that space when the regime is deprived of its lifeblood. I think Americans called this the Boston Tea Party.

      Will it happen? People who oppose regimes like this one are easily labeled as delusional. I don’t know. But what it would take to move this regime and replace it with something better is pretty clearly outlined in history. Just as oppression moves in familiar patterns, so does successful opposition to it. There are plenty of examples of failure. But I don’t put it beyond the capacity of any people, be they Venezuelans, Mexicans, Russians, South Africans, East Germans, whoever- to marshal that power and to exercise it successfully in toppling a dictatorship.

      What I also do know is that there is no precedent for the Vatican solving this problem. None at all. Moral suasion is only useful as a means of consolidating supporters of the opposition and motivating them: Maduro will not be “persuaded” to give up power for moral reasons. Pope John Paul was a cheerleader for democratic opposition movements. Rightly so. But he didn’t bring down soviet communism. So people who are placing their hopes in that process should really look at history and allocate their time, resources and political capital accordingly.

    • Kepler.
      One thing you need to take into account is that Gene Sharp’s method are not guaranteed to work, but historically, they have proven to be more successful than the alternatives, like violence, dialog or international pressure. In Siria they tried violence and the cost has been enormous.

  2. Trying to read between the lines on the Gambia story, it sounds like Yayha Jammeh actually wanted to retire. However, all of his cronies in the regime, who were about to lose their jobs, be investigated, or even jailed, got together and told the dictator that they would not permit it and that unless he rescinded his concession, they would be forced to kill him. Seeing that his options were limited, he did the only thing he could and is now wholeheartedly back to doing the dictator thing because there is no way out.

    That is the problem with the dictatorship business… it has a really lousy retirement plan.

  3. Jammeh might have tried to pull a sandinista move: Relinquish the seat of power to his opponent, while keeping ALL the other organs of the government apparatus under his control, that way he could stiffle the next goverment so people would get angry and then he would present himself again for elections as the “savior of the people”, this was what the sandinistas did in Nicaragua, they let Violeta Chamorro win the election but stripped her of all resources and power leaving her just a figurehead without any actual influence in anything.

    And that’s what chavismo has been doing in every election they lose, they strip the post of any power and resources immediately.

    Neither the so called “non violent resistance” nor any other way of resistance against chavismo will succeed without any visible and clear political leadership, that’s why chavismo has managed to get such a grip in power despite being today under 5% in the polls, they have used the MUD to attack and dismantle every movement that might be a threat for their regime (Such as La Salida in 2014)


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