The Islamic Republic of the Gambia came into being in 1965, after winning independence from the United Kingdom. In the intervening half-century, the Gambia has flirted with democracy, a union with Senegal, and military government. The current president, Yahya Jammeh, came to power in 1994 as a result of a military coup. In December 2016, the Gambia held its fourth presidential election since then.
How did Jammeh do against his rival, Barrow?
The Islamic Republic of the Gambia is a thin country completely surrounded by Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean. As with most countries above the “Islam Border,” the main religion of the Gambia is Islam. The fact that about 90% of the populace ascribes to Sunni Islam suggests a stabilizing homogeneity absent in countries along the Christian-Islam border located to the south.
In addition, the fact that the population is under two million suggests the same.
However, the Gambia contains at least five major ethnicities: Mandinka, Fula, Serer, Jola, and Serahuli. As with many countries in Africa, the nation never formed; that is, the main loyalty is to the ethnicity.
This is the first suggestion of inherent instability.
The second suggestion is that the president hails from the Jola tribe, meaning his natural supporters constitute only 10% of the population. His 2016 opponent (Adama Barrow) reportedly hails from both the Mandinka and Fula groups. Together, these two groups account for over 50% of the Gambian population.
As with Assad in Syria, who also rules a country while belonging to a (religious) minority, Jammeh used strength to hold the country together, serving as the symbol of unity. During his 20+ years of rule, there were no significant civil unrest. The Casamance Conflict in neighboring Senegal caused little disturbance in the Gambia.
The economy has been rather robust under Jammeh. The annual GDP tended to grow at an annual rate above those neighboring countries. According to the Daily Observer, the GDP growth grew at an annualized rate of at least 5% from 2006 to 2012.
From an economic standpoint, Jammeh should have little problem in his re-election campaign. From an ethnic power standpoint, there may be some issue. However, should he lose and freely step down, it will demonstrate his confidence in the people of the Gambia.
The 2016 Presidential Election
The Gambia held its 2016 presidential election on December 1, 2016. On that day, over a half-million Gambians turned out to vote their conscience. According to official results, that 60% turnout gave Adama Barrow the edge over Yahya Jammeh and Mamma Kandeh. Reportedly, 43% voted for Barrow, 40% for Jammeh, and 17% for Kandeh.
Here are maps of candidate support for the three candidates in the 2016 election.
On the evening of December 2, President Yahya Jammeh conceded the election to Barrow. However, after further review, he withdrew his concession. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) had conducted a recount and found the margin of victory for Barrow much smaller.
An examination of the raw vote counts raises other questions.
As there are only three candidates in the race, the vote counts for each should sum to the total number of valid ballots. Such is not the case.
In two large districts (Serekunda West and Brikama North), this accounting (exact, mathematical) relationship does not hold — even when taking into consideration the ballots declared invalid.
This is troubling. The IEC is charged with ensuring the legitimacy of the Gambian elections. Errors in accounting lend to the narrative that the commission is unable to perform its duties. This, in turn, weakens confidence in the election results.
The long-term readers of this site are used to invalidation plots (e.g., see Jonathan Lost, President Rajapaksa No Longer, and Sisi Wins in a Landslide) to examine the relationship between the invalidation rate and the candidate support rate. In this election, we cannot be confident that the invalidation rate has any meaning. The range of invalidation rates range from 0 to 0.4%. This low level of invalidation calls into question its use as a detector of electoral unfairness.
And so, we are faced with an inscrutable election. The invalidation rate does not help with detecting unfairness. The official protector of the electoral process reports results that do not make sense.
What is the way forward for the Gambia?
President Jammeh has a point that there were irregularities in the counting/reporting of the results. Barrow, however, also appears to be right that he received more votes any other candidate in the election.
Solving these issues may require an outside mediator balancing the desires of Gambians with the errors in the electoral process. After such decision is made &mdash or as a part of it — the Independent Electoral Commission must overhaul the electoral system to ensure that there is confidence in the system.
Perhaps Ghana’s system would serve as a great model for electoral security. In that system, party representatives sign off on the counts at each electoral division. These counts are then forwarded to Accra for a final tallying. At each step, representatives from each political party agree to the local result. Transparency is important. When errors occur, evidence at the division level exists, making it moot.