Barrow’s re-election In The Gambia Further Dims Jammeh’s Clout

By Nlkiss Hultin

The Gambia’s President Adama Barrow, of the National People’s Party, comfortably won re-election on 4 December with about 53% of the vote.

The runner-up, Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party, won about 28% of the vote. In third place was Mama Kandeh of the Gambia Democratic Congress with about 12%.

Three other candidates — Halifa Sallah of the People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism, Abdoulie Jammeh of the National Unity Party, and Essa Faal (independent) – each got under 5% of the national vote.

The outcome was not a surprise. Public opinion polling conducted before the election had shown the National People’s Party with a commanding lead.

Darboe and Kandeh have rejected the result of the election, citing unspecified irregularities. (Faal initially did too but has since conceded.)

United Democratic Party supporters clashed with police a day after the election results were announced but it is unlikely that the result will change.

A coalition of civil society organizations and the Commonwealth have both described the election as credible and transparent.

Barrow’s decisive win will reverberate through the Gambian political landscape. It signals the diminishing importance of his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, who tried to influence the election from his exile in Equatorial Guinea.

And it calls into question the fate of The Gambia’s transitional program, adopted by Barrow and his coalition partners after they won the 2016 election.

The program included a new constitution, security sector reform, a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, and the lifting of repressive laws, many of colonial origin, used by Jammeh.

The effort to create a new constitution is currently dormant. It’s not clear if it will be revived.

Equally unclear is whether the recommendations in the final report of the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission, submitted to the Barrow administration just days before the election, will be heeded.

The report is yet to be made public. But it is believed to include recommendations for prosecuting certain political figures in the Jammeh administration who may now be in a political alliance with Barrow.

Barrow’s win leaves the opposition with an uncertain path forward, faced with weak results and in several cases aging leadership.

Finally, it is clear that Barrow pulled off what Jammeh failed to do before the 2016 election: consolidate an anti-United Democratic Party alliance out of several smaller parties.

As my research has shown, there is a long history of a kind of shadow politics of ethnicity in The Gambia. But Barrow won across the country and even a majority of the constituencies that make up Foni, the heartland of Jammeh’s Jola ethnic group.

Implications of Barrow’s victory

Jammeh sought to influence the election from afar and his messages were recorded and broadcast at rallies for his supporters. But his former party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, had split into two factions.

One of Barrow’s more controversial moves prior to the election was to form an alliance with the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction and several other smaller parties. The inclusion of the party in the alliance was decried as a betrayal of the victims of Jammeh and the making of an “evil alliance”.

Initial reporting on the alliance suggested that it would pave the way for Jammeh’s return to the country. But Jammeh himself denounced the alliance and called for his old party’s members to support Kandeh’s Gambia Democratic Congress.

If Jammeh had ambitions to serve as a kingmaker, these ambitions have been dashed. Kandeh generally did worse in 2021 than he did in the 2016 election.

At the same time, there is clearly no love lost between Barrow and Jammeh. It does not seem likely that Barrow would welcome Jammeh’s return to the country.

Second, it is very uncertain what will happen with the draft constitution. Although Barrow was officially supportive of the work of the Constitutional Review Commission, it was legislators loyal to Barrow that, in September 2020, torpedoed the effort because of the issue of term limits.

The Gambian political scientist Sait Matty Jaw wrote at the time that their key concern was “allowing Barrow to stay in office”.

However, in his first press conference after his victory, Barrow pledged a new constitution that would include term limits.

It is also unclear what Barrow’s victory means for the recommendations of the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission. The commission has given Gambians a window into the extensive and systematic human rights abuses of the Jammeh era.

Jammeh loyalists, including some now in the alliance with Barrow, have criticized the commission’s hearings as a “witch hunt”. They called for its recommendations to be “trashed”, raising the worry that the report and its recommendations will be ignored with Barrow’s victory.

Unlike other candidates, Barrow did not make the implementation of the recommendations a major theme in his campaign. Even after winning reelection, if Barrow concludes that he is reliant on Jammeh loyalists to push his agenda, the recommendations might only be enacted in part.

The final report of the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission was originally scheduled to be presented to the government in July 2021. It was finally submitted to the government on 25 November. Critics raised questions about the timing. There was not sufficient time for it to be released to Gambians before the election.

The entry of the lead prosecutor of the commission, Essa Faal, into the political fray as an independent candidate added fuel to the criticism. Some Gambians criticized Faal as an ambitious opportunist.

His candidacy was arguably not helped by the commission not being as popular as one might expect. According to Afro barometer, less than half of all Gambians trust the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission at least somewhat.

Faal’s abysmal showing (around 2% of the national vote) may well show Barrow that he has the political headroom to ignore or soften the commission’s recommendations.

In the post-election press conference, Barrow said “there will be justice” and “there will be reconciliation and there will be reparations.” But what justice will look like, given his successful electoral alliance, remains unclear.

What’s next?

Darboe, the leader of the United Democratic Party, is 73 years old and it seems unlikely he will contest the 2026 presidential election. He doesn’t have a clear successor.

Kandeh is 56 and will likely have another go at the presidency in five years, but his showing in this election does not suggest a successful run.

Sallah is 68 and has already announced that he is done running for office.

Abdoulie Jammeh and Faal are both in their 50s, but their results call their future candidacies into question unless there is a political re-alignment of some sort in The Gambia.

It is thus difficult to see a serious electoral challenge against Barrow and the National People’s Party in the near future.