The Gambian Scenario: How a Dictator Lost the Election He Rigged

After two decades of exceptionally tyrannical rule, almost nobody thought Yahya Jammeh would leave power through the ballot box. Least of all him. But that’s what happened.

Photo: Reuters, retrieved

Yahya Jammeh was a piece of work. In his 22 years of eccentric authoritarian rule over The Gambia, he claimed miraculous powers to cure infertility and AIDS with herbal concoctions. After staging a coup in 1994, he spent his time persecuting journalists, harassing the gay community and ordering the execution of criminals and political opponents. Just your standard-issue whack-job dictator.

Why should Venezuelans care?

Because, on January 21, 2017, two months after losing an election he’d gone all out to rig, he stepped down down from power — reluctantly, but peacefully.

How did this happen? What lessons does this sliver of West Africa hold for us?

Since 1994, when Jammeh seized power in a coup, he ruled ruthlessly. He had two types of goons in charge of the dirty business: the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the Jungulers.

NIA was an official intelligence office, which in many cases disappeared, tortured, and harassed opposition activists. The Jungulers were a paramilitary unit in charge of committing more egregious crimes. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

Yahya Jammeh did not hesitate to eliminate his enemies or publicly threaten them. “Let me warn those evil vermin called ‘opposition,’” he once said. “If you want to destabilize this country, I will bury you nine-feet deep.”

He was that type, convinced his government would last forever –– he once said he would govern The Gambia for a billion years.

But even so, it’s the 21st century, so once every five years he had to hold elections. One was scheduled for the end of 2016.

Early in the year, protests for better voting conditions erupted, led by the political activist and leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP), Solo Sandeng. The plot twist is that Solo Sandeng was arrested during these protests and taken to the NIA headquarters, where he was tortured and beaten. To death.

Just stop and try to imagine a Venezuela where SEBIN picked up Henrique Capriles at a protest and literally beat him to death.

“Let me warn those evil vermin called ‘opposition,’” he once said. “If you want to destabilize this country, I will bury you nine-feet deep.”

Protests intensified after Solo’s death, and other 90 political activists were taken into custody. Some were tortured, some imprisoned. International pressure grew by members of the Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), calling upon the E.U. and the United States to draw sanctions on Yahya Jammeh and his government officials. By October 2016, the U.S. had imposed a travel ban on new visas for Gambian government officials, as well as their families.

As Election Day drew near, the opposition faced two main barriers. First, political campaigning was limited for the opposition to two weeks of equal share on airtime of state television and radio. Of course, for Yahya there were no limits.

Second, even when assurances had been made that, for example, votes would now be counted on each polling station and not at a central station, concerns remained; previously, Jammeh’s government had used the state’s machinery to mobilize voters to polling stations and to intimidate journalists and opponents. Some of this stuff sounds about as criollo as a batido de lechosa, huh?

Despite this wall of intimidation and coercion, the opposition went out to vote. On December 1, 2016, elections happened and — stop me if this sounds familiar — nobody expected anything to change. As we have learned from this little briefing, Yahya controlled everything in The Gambia, including elections. Even if he lost the vote, people were sure he’d hang on to power somehow.

Sure enough, even though he accepted defeat at first, a week after the election he claimed fraud and refused to accept the results. And the immediate response of the international community calling him to accept the results was the game changer.

His contender, Mr. Adama Barrow, pressed his case. Tension escalated, and Yahya deployed his troops on December 10. On December 13, the army occupied the offices of the Electoral Commission, and once more fear reigned, but that same day the Liberian President and Nobel Peace Laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf headed a delegation of the regional international community to find a solution to the crisis.

Facing a total meltdown, regional leaders responded to their mandate (the ECOWAS has a direct mandate to protect democracy in the region); Barrow sought refuge in Senegal amid threats to his personal integrity, but a deadline was set for Mr. Jammeh to step down before January 18th, the day Mr. Barrow ought to be sworn in.

Nobody expected anything to change. Yahya controlled everything in The Gambia, including elections. Even if he lost the vote, people were sure he’d hang on to power somehow.

As mediation failed, Yahya’s National Assembly issued a decree through which his time as president was extended 90 days, so members of the ECOWAS realized pressure needed to mount. On January 14, they met to discuss a military intervention called Operation Restore Democracy. That same day, the United Nations Security Council approved SC/RES/2237, expressing its full support for ECOWAS’s quest, without endorsing military action.

Thousand of Gambians fled the country fearing that, if Yahya Jammeh managed to cling to power, retaliation would be worse.

Barrow was sworn in as the legitimate president at Gambia’s embassy in Senegal, but even then, Yahya refused to leave. It was only when troops of Senegal and Nigeria approached Gambian territory that delegations sent to negotiate with Yahya Jammeh reached an agreement, and Mr. Jammeh left the country — in a plane full of luxury cars and cash stolen from the Central Bank.

Not one drop of blood was shed.

It was the threat of military force, and — according to Aljazeera — Mr. Jammeh’s ability to negotiate his retirement with full benefits of citizen, party leader and former head of state now living in a farm in Equatorial Guinea, what made the restoring of democratic rule possible.

Why did the International Community take on Yahya Jammeh so strongly? The Gambia is not strategic in any way; it has a population of 1.9 million citizens, and its economy is a rounding error in global statistics.

Usually, the international community is criticized for acting only in cases where interests are at stake. Not in the Gambia. So, could we expect the same for Venezuela?

Of course, we face different challenges; oil makes things more complicated, and might turn an effort like this into a caimanera regional. The ghost of Latin America’s history is still too present, too, and for several leaders this remains a significant reason not to intervene.

But wouldn’t it be nice to see our regional leaders taking the reigns of proactive diplomacy and create their own version of Operation Restore Democracy?

Claudia González

Venezuelan/Chilean. Economist on paper, Political Science junkie in practice. Member of a liberal party on Chile. Love and miss the Venezuelan beaches but also enjoy the winter.