By Akin Rotimi
This is a historic week in the world as far as democratic transitions are concerned. On Friday, January 20, 2017, President Barack Obama would be handing over as President of the United States of America to Donald Trump, the maverick businessman turned politician who won the 58th quadrennial American presidential election.
Africa is also scheduled to witness a transition in the Gambia. Thursday, January 19, 2017 has been slated for the inauguration of Adama Barrow as the 3rd president of the West African country – a change that should be the first in 22 years and also the first by democratic means since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1965.
The two transitions bear some similarities. Asides being scheduled to hold in the same week, both presidents-elect Trump and Barrow won as outsiders, on the back of very strong anti-establishment sentiments, and were given very little chances by the bookmakers prior to their elections. The two transitions would be alternations of power between political parties, and both men were real estate moguls with absolutely no prior experience holding public office.
But that is as far as the interesting coincidences go. The two transitions pose in very stark relief the differences between a country that is grounded in democratic principles and traditions, and one still grappling with the stranglehold of authoritarian dictatorship. America’s inauguration has held on the same day – January 20 – since 1937, and barring any act of God outside of human control, Donald Trump is sure to be sworn-in as president, and in a defined form that would feature a number of ceremonies befitting of the inauguration of a world leader, and the celebration of the country’s 240-years unbroken tradition of peaceful transitions.
Even in instances where electoral outcomes have not been favourable, key political operatives from both sides of the partisan divide have historically put aside their interests and worked to protect the sanctity of America’s democracy. President Obama sums up this patriotic spirit in his post-election speech, “… one thing you realize quickly in this job is that the presidency and the vice presidency is bigger than any of us. So I have instructed my team to follow the example that President Bush’s team set eight years ago, and work as hard as we can to make sure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect.” President Trump has thus benefited from a rich tradition that he himself could not commit to keeping, in the event that he lost the election.
Conversely, the Gambia’s transition is threatened by one man – Yayah Jammeh, the country’s autocratic incumbent ruler who came to power in 1994 as a 29-year old army lieutenant. Jammeh had conceded to Barrow via a state-wide broadcast after losing the December 1, 2016 elections, but recanted a week later citing irregularities in the election. On Tuesday, Jammeh declared a state of emergency in his country, heightening tensions, and increasing the prospects of a military intervention by ECOWAS to forcefully remove him from office. Senegal is currently playing host to Adama Barrow, and is on standby to lead the regional bloc’s military offensive against Jammeh, should the mediation and diplomacy efforts fail to yield results in the coming days.
The likes of former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan of Nigeria, and John Dramani Mahama of Ghana, by their statesmanlike rhetoric and conduct after losing their re-election bids, can be considered good sons of Africa, who made us proud by ensuring peaceful transitions in their respective countries – Yayah Jammeh is a bad son of a good mother, the type that insists on dancing naked in the marketplace covered in faeces. After over two decades as president, he has apparently learnt nothing from history, as he appears to be hell bent on being disgraced and humiliated out of office like Laurent Gbagbo of Côte d’Ivoire before him. There is no doubt about it, before this week runs out, Yayah Jammeh would no longer be in power, the world however waits to see how and when this would happen, as the despot has failed to leverage a peaceful relinquishing of power to redeem whatever is left of his very bad name.
While President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current Chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and other presidents in the region should be commended for their lead role in the mediation efforts, and for taking necessary steps to mobilize for a possible military intervention to remove Jammeh from office, it should be placed on record that they have set a harmful precedent by circumventing democratic principles by failing to respect Jammeh’s right to contest the election results. Amongst other allegations following Jammeh’s volte-face, he claimed there were irregularities in the election and thousands of Gambians with voters’ cards were denied voting even though they were at the polling centres before polling closed.
His election appeal was filed in accordance with section 49 of the Gambia’s constitution, which states that “any registered political party which had participated in the presidential election or an independent candidate who has participated in such an election may apply to the supreme court to determine the validity of the result of a president by filing a petition within 10 days of the declaration of the result of the election” – there are however no judges to hear the case. Jammeh had for all the years he has spent in office failed to build the institutions that support democracy, including an independent judiciary. The Gambia’s Supreme Court is not currently constituted and has not held any sitting since May 2015 following the arbitrary dismissal of two justices by Jammeh.
The Supreme Court was billed to hear Jammeh’s appeal on January 10, 2017, but according to the country’s only Supreme Court Judge and Chief Justice, Nigerian-born Emmanuel Fagbenle, the foreign judges that had been appointed to hear the case would only be available in May or November, 2017, effectively putting paid to Jammeh’s chances of being heard before the expiration of his tenure. This is a constitutional crisis and a rape of justice and ECOWAS is complicit. Jammeh obviously doesn’t deserve it, but the constitution should have been upheld and the appeal heard. ECOWAS had the powers to deploy judges from the member countries to do this, and fast track adjudication on the matter, and the dispensation of justice before the inauguration. To ECOWAS, the dog’s bad name is sufficient reason to hang it – the ends of Jammeh leaving office, justifies the means of a landmark constitutional breach.
The days to come would be very interesting as history would be made. The sun would set on Barack Obama’s administration, but his name and enviable legacy would be forever etched in gold. Donald Trump would assume office signalling a new era in America’s history. Yayah Jammeh would most likely go on exile to another African country, and would one day have his day in court – not for his election appeal, but to be tried for his human rights violations while in office. Lastly, Arsenal football club fans would finally have something to be proud of as one of them – Adama Barrow – becomes President of the Gambia.
Akin Rotimi, a diplomacy and strategic communications professional writes from Abuja, Nigeria.
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