On December 4, The Gambia held its first elections since the fall of the dictatorial regime of Yahya Jammeh in December 2016.
Although Jammeh’s legacy casts a shadow over the country’s democratic future, the elections were conducted relatively peacefully and saw an unprecedented turnout of nearly 90%. Considered decisive but peaceful, it ended in the victory of outgoing President Adama Barrow with 53.2% of the vote.
When it comes to how to conduct a successful political transition, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. However, a general belief among academics is that the success or failure of the first elections after the fall of the old regime can play an important role in determining the democratization process.
Barrow came to power in 2016 after defeating Jammeh in the presidential election. He has since led a country that many analysts expected to retreat ahead of the 2021 presidential election. Factors such as the disintegration of the opposition coalition, which supported him, as well as economic inequalities and social discontent made The Gambia particularly vulnerable.
The regression in societies in transition usually occurs within the first five years, as evidenced by the cases of Sudan after the fall of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, of Egypt after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and of the Myanmar after the training of a civilian. government led by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
However, The Gambia appears to have defied the odds of a democratic setback thanks in large part to proactive citizenship, a participatory civil society that benefited from democratic openness, and new leadership. This has led to unprecedented democratic gains in a short period – achievements which are arguably unmatched by any current transition society in Africa.
Since The Gambia’s political transition began in 2016, citizens have played a very proactive role in speaking, writing and debating current and future challenges facing Africa’s youngest democracy. The citizens did not leave any arbitrary arrests unchecked. The state, on the other hand, has become reluctant to infringe on the rights of the people, and the burgeoning space for free speech has led to the proliferation of online media, print media, and print media. radio, all dedicated to consolidating a peaceful democratic transition. .
Gambian civil society has played a particularly important role in the country’s democratic advances, including, but not limited to, the peaceful conduct of the presidential election. As their campaigns approached, the All-Party Committee, with technical support from civil society organizations, such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), made all political parties and candidates sign a pledge affirming their commitment by support for campaigns and peaceful elections. This has been called the Janjanbureh Peace Agreement. In addition, peace conferences, seminars, television broadcasts, religious speeches and education campaigns on peaceful electoral practices have been organized by civil society organizations.
The political reforms undertaken by the Barrow administration also helped ensure peaceful and fair elections. Gambian justice has become more accessible and is now independent of the executive interference it has faced under Jammeh. These reforms have allowed the judiciary to speak out against the state and the president on several occasions, which is unprecedented in the country’s history.
When the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) rejected some political candidates, the judiciary spoke out against the IEC, which reinforced the legitimacy of the judiciary in the eyes of the public. Indeed, impartial justice is the cornerstone of any successful political transition.
It must also be recognized that Barrow’s victory could not have happened without an alliance with Jammeh’s political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). Jammeh rejected this alliance, which consequently led to the split of the APRC into two factions. The party’s executive body chose to work with Barrow while the other faction followed the dictates of Jammeh who supported the opposition party, the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC).
Jammeh continued to disrupt the political arena he ruled for 22 years by launching a barrage of attacks on Barrow and his administration, accusing him of incompetence, derailing the country’s development and rigging the 2016 election.
Barrow said the alliance between him and the APRC is an attempt to reconcile a fragile and polarized country.
It also faces the challenge of implementing recommendations provided by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, an independent body established by parliament to investigate human rights violations committed by the Jammeh regime. Among the recommendations is the prosecution of some loyalists of the APRC and the former president himself.
Barrow will likely be open to implementing some of the recommendations, including punishing Jammeh, but not necessarily APRC party officials.
Peaceful elections are the cornerstone of democracy and any successful society in transition, as they can significantly affect the way future elections are conducted. The Gambia has just taken an important step in its democratic transition and can serve as an example for other countries emerging from dictatorship.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.