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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 167-172

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Post-Coup Politics in the Gambia

Abdoulaye Saine

Four years ago in these pages, following the disputed 1996 presidential election in the Gambia, the late John Wiseman characterized the "democratization process" in that small West African country as a "moldy loaf." 1 Soldier-turned-civilian president Colonel Yahya Jammeh, who had taken power in a bloodless 1994 coup, engineered the 1996 election to ensure himself victory. Jammeh's decision to stand again for the presidency in 2001, the kind of campaign that he ran, and the type of elections that he conducted form a backdrop against which we can assess the prospects for a return to free government in what was once one of Africa's oldest continuously surviving multiparty democracies.

The 18 October 2001 presidential balloting was riddled with irregularities and problems, ranging from a truncated campaign period designed to favor the incumbent to instances of intimidation and violence against opposition political leaders and supporters. It seems clear that President Jammeh's reelection was aided by padded voter rolls, illicit votes from non-Gambian members of Jammeh's Jola ethnic group who crossed over from Senegal, and an Electoral Commission chairman who manipulated the rules. Together, these irregularities rendered the election fundamentally flawed.

The Gambia is a former British colony (and current Commonwealth member) of 1.5 million people, four-fifths of whom are Muslim. It has the smallest land area of any African country and is almost completely surrounded by its much larger neighbor, the former French colony of Senegal. After gaining its independence in 1965, the officially English-speaking [End Page 167] Gambia remained a democracy until the 22 July 1994 coup that ousted President Dawda Jawara, who at the time was Africa's longest-serving head of state. 2 Once in power, the military suspended the Constitution and issued Decree 89, which banned a number of political parties and individual politicians. With the rule of law thus short-circuited, the level of protection accorded to human rights sadly but predictably declined.

A combination of international economic sanctions and domestic protests impelled Jammeh to announce a two-year schedule for returning the country to "civilian" rule. The twin capstones of the process were to be elections to the presidency and to the unicameral, 49-seat National Assembly in 1996 and 1997, respectively. The presidential vote was neither free nor fair because the electoral process was engineered from the beginning to enable Jammeh, now officially a civilian heading a newly created party called the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), to keep the office that he had taken by force two years earlier. To this day, leaders of the Gambia's United Democratic Party (UDP) dispute the 1996 results, while the country continues to be run by a nominally "civilianized" military cadre consisting of Jammeh and his associates, all now out of uniform and retired from active duty. The press is muzzled, while the judiciary's primary purpose seems to be enforcing draconian laws and military decrees.

The regime likes to answer its critics by pointing to the numerous schools, hospitals, clinics, and roads that it has built since coming to power in 1994. It is true that the regime also refurbished the national airport and government-owned radio station, in addition to building the country's first university and only television station. These are remarkable achievements in which many Gambians take pride. On this score, the regime's performance is indeed better than that of the civilian regime it deposed. Despite these improvements, however, the economy remains sluggish, in part because of the aid cutoffs that key donors imposed in response to the coup. Even amid their improved infrastructure, therefore, most Gambians are living in deeper poverty than before, with a per capita GDP estimated at about US$340 for the year 2000.

On 22 July 2001, the Commonwealth forced president Jammeh to lift Decree 89's ban on parties in advance of the presidential balloting set for that October. Under this measure, the three major political parties dating from before...