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  • African AmbiguitiesThe Gambia-From Coup to Elections
  • John A. Wiseman (bio)

Explaining the readiness of his fellow Nigerians to accept the contrived and limited process through which their country was supposed to return to democracy in 1993, Nobel prizewinning author and dissident Wole Soyinka observed that “Nigerians made up their minds that even a moldy loaf was better than nothing and that the immediate target . . . was to get rid of the military [dictatorship].” 1 In the event, of course, the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the 1993 presidential election tout court. Instead of a moldy loaf, Nigerians ended up with nothing at all.

Although the circumstances surrounding the 1996–97 legislative and presidential elections in the Gambia differed in some ways from those a few years earlier in Nigeria, Soyinka’s metaphor vividly captures the character of the political change that did occur in that much smaller West African state, which contains slightly more than a million people in a territory, virtually surrounded by Senegal, running for about two hundred miles along the lower reaches of the Gambia River. The elections, which were supposed to mark a democratic transition from military to civilian rule, were deeply flawed and left the military head of state, Colonel Yahya Jammeh, still in charge as a nominally civilianized president. Yet despite the sharp limits and serious distortions besetting the whole exercise, there was genuine movement in a democratic direction. This was owing largely to the activism of Gambian civil society and the decision of domestic opposition groups to put aside their [End Page 64] thoroughly justifiable misgivings in order to take part in the electoral process.

Until the army coup led by then-Lieutenant Jammeh on 22 July 1994, the Gambia had had a multiparty democracy that dated back to independence from Britain in 1965—the longest-surviving such regime in Africa. For nearly three decades after the country’s peaceful acquisition of self-rule, it had been governed by President Dawda Kairaba Jawara and his People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Free and relatively fair multiparty elections were regularly held. It was ironic that the military takeover came just as most other African states were moving in precisely the opposite direction, reintroducing more democratic and competitive party systems after decades of authoritarian rule.

The coup was the work of a group of young officers calling themselves the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC). Jammeh, their leader, promptly promoted himself to colonel and promised “a new era of freedom, progress, democracy, and accountability.” Meanwhile, he was banning all existing political parties and ordering the arrest of most political leaders who had not already fled the country, as well as many senior army and police officers. Lawyers’ and doctors’ groups, trade unionists, the independent press, and most Western nations condemned the takeover, but could not prevent Jammeh and his cohorts from embarking on 30 months of increasingly authoritarian rule. 2

The AFPRC’s media policy, for instance, significantly restricted open discussion of political matters. The newly established national television station and government-controlled newspapers such as the Gambia Daily and Upfront (the latter’s masthead proudly styled it “The Voice of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council”) specialized in undiluted praise for Jammeh and unadulterated attacks on anyone who appeared to be a critic. From the start, Jammeh showed extreme hostility toward the independent press. Restrained from banning it outright by fear of international opprobrium, he used a number of strategies to harass and intimidate journalists. That newspapers such as the Observer, the Point, and Forayaa managed to keep publishing and maintain even a cautiously critical stance testifies to the determination, and in many cases the personal courage, of their editors and staffers.

Since 1994, independent journalists have regularly been arrested and beaten or abused in other ways by members of the security forces (one I spoke to on a recent visit had been the victim of a suspicious house fire, set while he was sleeping). Many journalists have been hauled into court on the flimsiest of charges, sometimes under colonial laws dating to the Second World War. In many cases, judges have exercised independence in dealing with politically motivated charges. Yet even if...