Gambia: President, in Power 22 Years, Loses Election
BANJUL, Gambia (The New York Times) — Yahya Jammeh, the president of Gambia, has been defeated in his bid for re-election, according to results made public on Friday. It is a stunning turn for a nation that has lived for more than two decades under what human rights groups have described as a repressive regime.
Adama Barrow, a real estate company owner, was declared the winner a day after voters cast ballots, in an upset victory that astonished observers.
In a concession speech broadcast on state television on Friday night, Mr. Jammeh, one of Africa’s most eccentric leaders, calmly accepted his loss.
“I told you, Gambians, that I will not question the outcome of the results and will accept it,” he said. “I did not wish to contest or find out why they did not vote for me. I leave that with God.”
Mr. Jammeh’s whereabouts on Friday was unknown, and speculation was rampant that he had fled the country.
People celebrated in the streets, calling it a new era for the West African nation.
“We have our country back,” shouted Modu Ceesay, a taxi driver who took his shirt off and waved it furiously over his head. “This is our country, and now we have it.”
Mr. Jammeh’s defeat is a rare turn for the crop of longtime African leaders who have amassed so much power — and often, wealth — through decades of incumbency that they sometimes manage to stay in office until death. Other so-called leaders for life have interfered with elections to cling to power. Mr. Jammeh had himself been accused of keeping power by rigging elections in the past.
Adama Barrow, the opposition candidate, campaigning in Talinding, Gambia, on Tuesday. He was declared the winner on Friday.
And so it came as a surprise that in this tiny sliver of a country, the smallest on continental Africa, voters managed to oust a strongman who has reigned for 22 years in a government that prosecuted and jailed critics, some of whom wound up dead, and sent thousands of fearful citizens into exile.
After more than 24 hours of an internet and phone blackout, networks lit up Friday morning in the nation, which has a population just under two million, as the news that Mr. Jammeh was trailing in the vote count began to trickle out. On the streets in Gambia, men took off their shirts in celebration, pounding on passing cars. One yelled repeatedly, “Today we are free!”
Mr. Jammeh seized power in a coup in 1994, and he has become known for eccentric behavior that included claiming to be able to cure AIDS with herbs, prayer and a banana. He has been denounced by human rights groups for threatening to behead gay people, ordering so-called sorcerers to be hunted and killed, and arresting and prosecuting journalists and supporters of the opposition.
“It is the birth of a new Gambia where we can together as people raise our fists to the sky and say ‘never again shall we experience dictatorship,’” said Sheriff Bojang Jr., a Gambian journalist who has lived in exile in Dakar, Senegal, for 15 years.
Mr. Barrow, a real estate agent and former security guard at a London department store, is an accidental presidential candidate. He was thrust into the position after members of his party were either arrested or died in prison this year. Supporters describe him as an unassuming businessman.
Yet he managed to do what no other opposition candidate has done in recent elections: bring various groups together to support him. His coalition of opposition groups jelled in the final days of the campaign as enthusiasm swept the streets of Banjul, the capital. People gathered by the hundreds for peaceful protests, crying out for the end to what they said was an oppressive government.
“What happened is unity,” said Jeffrey Smith, founder of Vanguard Africa, a political consultancy and nonprofit group that supported Mr. Barrow in the campaign. “That is precisely what is needed to take down highly entrenched regimes.”
But analysts said the victory might be more a vote against Mr. Jammeh than one for Mr. Barrow.
In past months, Mr. Jammeh’s administration had come under increasing scrutiny by Western leaders over the suppression of human rights. The European Union threatened to impose sanctions on the government, and the United States issued statements highly critical of Mr. Jammeh’s crackdowns on opponents. Organizations like Amnesty International released stinging reports on his methods.
In recent years, democracy has had mixed results on the continent. Late last year, Ivory Coast had its first peaceful election in two decades. In Nigeria, the dominant party lost elections last year and conceded to Muhammadu Buhari, who is now president, in a peaceful transfer of power that reverberated across Africa.
And in some nations, presidents who have tried to hold on to power have been ousted by popular uprisings. The government of Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso was toppled in 2014 after mass protests against his attempts to change the Constitution and to extend his tenure after he had been in office for 27 years.
But elsewhere, other leaders are hanging on to power, like in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila’s term is almost up and it is unclear when an election will take place. This year, Gabon was widely accused of verifying fraudulent election results that kept President Ali Bongo Ondimba in power.
And some nations on the continent still maintain so-called presidents for life. In Cameroon, Paul Biya has been in power since 1982. Mr. Biya has been criticized for spending weeks at a time in Europe, with some critics calling him the president of the Hotel Intercontinental in Geneva. This summer, a Cameroonian citizen stood outside the hotel with a loudspeaker shouting insults at the president.
The message from elections across not just Africa but the globe is muddled. Winners are those who can unite various forces that in the past have pursued their own, separate interests and split the vote, said Kamissa Camara, a political expert and founder of the Sahel Strategy Forum, a research group that analyzes events in West and Central Africa.
“In general, politics has become so unpredictable,” she said. “Outcomes such as the one we’re seeing today in Gambia will definitely send the signal that elections are not for nothing.”
In his concession call to Mr. Barrow, Mr. Jammeh admonished him to “work towards peace and stability.”
“Because without peace and stability, let me make it clear, you cannot achieve anything in Africa,” he said.