Recently the Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog published a piece discussing the findings of a 36 nation African survey that asked people for their views on the importance of democracy and the degree to which their own countries were democratically governed. The report found that, while fewer people view democracy positively than did in similar surveys in 2011 and 2013, democracy is still the most preferred form of government among Africans, and in general there still seems to be a continent-wide desire for more democracy. At a time when some scholars are arguing about a “democracy recession” around the world, these are encouraging findings.
In that vein, then, the surprising results of yesterday’s presidential election in The Gambia have to be considered a rare 2016 victory for democracy. Incumbent President Yahya Jammeh, who first came to power in a 1994 military coup and once said he would rule for a “billion years,” God-willing…lost. I guess God wasn’t in to that billion years idea. In an even greater victory for democracy, Jammeh–not without some reported encouragement from the commander of his state guards–actually conceded the election and vowed to step aside peacefully for his successor.
Jammeh’s human rights record, as you might expect from somebody who seized office by force and then stayed there for 22 years, was terrible. He’s governed the country unilaterally. He’s disappeared, arrested, tortured, and murdered critics and political opponents, jailed journalists, and abused LGBTI Gambians. He’s arrested people on charges of witchcraft and has promoted his own “herbal cures” for things like infertility and AIDS. He led The Gambia out of the International Criminal Court not out of principle, but because he’s a likely target of an ICC investigation. He seemed to lay the groundwork for stealing this election when he predicted he would win in a “landslide” and then promptly cut off the country’s internet and blocked all international calls. He lost anyway, and Gambians are understandably celebrating his defeat.
The new Gambian president is Adama Barrow, whose story is remarkable in its own right. The owner of a real estate agency, Barrow spent the early 00s working as a security guard in a London retail store while studying to get his real estate license. He’s promised to restore freedom of expression, establish a more independent judiciary, and even put the country back into the ICC, which has to make him popular at The Hague. When he assumes office in January he will have some immediate chances to show he means to keep these promises by releasing political prisoners and undoing some of Jammeh’s most repressive policies.