In modern democracy, it is somewhat rare for a country to have two presidents.
In the Gambia, however, it was the case for over a month after the December 1st election.
After a hotly contested vote, President Yayah Jammeh (who led the country for 22 years after seizing power as a 29 year old lieutenant in a 1994 military coup) initially accepted his defeat to opposition leader Adama Barrow, yet when the time came to hand over power he refused to leave and remained ensconced in the country’s State House while military forces from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) massed on the country’s borders.
Jammeh eventually agreed to step down and leave the country on 21st January, paving the way for Barrow to return to the country and assume office – a moment that marked the Gambia’s first ever democratic transition of power. The road to the transition was a long and complex one – Jammeh declared a state of national emergency in an attempt to hold onto power and consistently refused to give in to mounting international pressure to leave. Even when he finally agreed to go, Gambians who continued to support his presidency flocked to the airport to see him leave, entering the plane taking him to exile in Equatorial Guinea in a manner more befitting a film star or celebrity.
A former military officer, Jammeh retained a large support base among army members – Gambian army chief General Ousman Badjie, perhaps the last public remaining pillar of support for Mr Jammeh, eventually relented and said that he would “welcome” the military forces intended to enforce the transition of power.
Jammeh had been accused of human rights abuses by the international monitoring organisation Human Rights Watch including torture, forced disappearances and detention of any dissenting voices. Visiting the country for the first time in 2014, two UN Special Rapporteurs concluded that torture was a ‘consistent practice’ and that ordinary Gambians regularly had to avoid arrest. Jammeh intensified his crackdown on dissent in an attempt to cling onto power after the December election, arresting many army officers and those sympathetic to the opposition he considered disloyal and closing down a number of independent radio stations.
Barrow has pledged to turn a new page on the issue of human rights for Gambia by releasing political prisoners and ending Jammeh’s plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. The #GambiaHasDecided movement, a Twitter campaign formed of Barrow supporters and proponents of a peaceful transition of power, has moved from the internet onto the streets as the fear of being censored by the Jammeh government has disappeared and now supporters wearing the slogan on t-shirts have become visible, both in the streets and in interviews with many news organisations.
Although the signs for the future of Gambia are promising, questions still remain about Jammeh’s departure and how Barrow will improve the welfare of the country’s nearly 1.9 million inhabitants. In economic terms, the Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $488.57. Jammeh has also been accused of taking around £8.8m of public money with him when leaving for exile in Equatorial Guinea, allegations which have not been proven and are currently being investigated.