AD348: Citizen engagement in Gambia: Enough to secure democratic gains?

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Sait Matty Jaw and Thomas Isbell

In December 2016, a little-known businessman backed by a coalition of seven political parties shocked Gambians by defeating then-President Yahya Jammeh at the ballot box. Adama Barrow’s victory ended two decades of autocratic rule marked by the stifling of dissent and gross human rights violations ranging from arbitrary arrests to torture and extra-judicial killings. Under Jammeh, the 1997 constitution was amended 52 times, weakening democratic institutions while strengthening self-perpetuating rule (Mehta, 2019).

Since the change of government in 2017, Gambians have celebrated their new-found freedom of speech (Durmaz, 2019), and observers have cited the country’s “rapid democratic gains” (Freedom House, 2019) and “largest overall improvement in Africa over the past years” (Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 2019). Jeffrey Smith (2020) of the Vanguard Africa Foundation said the Gambia “has bucked the broader trend of democratic backsliding, showing real improvement despite the challenging circumstances.”

But recent government interference with the media, academia, and opposition activists has drawn charges of backsliding (Jobarteh, 2020; V-Dem Institute, 2020). The state has come under severe criticism for its handling of the “3 Years Jotna” (3 Years Is Up) protest movement, which demands that Barrow respect the terms of the Coalition 2016 MOU (memorandum of understanding) requiring that he step down after three years in a transitional presidency that would lay the groundwork for electoral reforms and new elections (Shaban, 2020). Following violent clashes between the police and protesters, the government declared the movement subversive, banned it, arrested 137 protesters, and charged the movement leadership (Freedom Newspaper, 2020; Reuters, 2020; Jallow, 2020). The government has also shut down two media houses and arrested four journalists for “inciting violence” (Jawo, 2020). According to Amnesty International (2020), despite gains in the country’s human rights record, “the crackdown on protesters had alarming echoes of Gambia’s brutal past.”

Findings from Afrobarometer’s 2018 survey in the Gambia confirm that citizens were enjoying greater political and civic freedoms in the early post-Jammeh era, although we do not know how these perceptions may have changed in response to subsequent government actions. The findings also shed light on how Gambians envision and practice democracy. Most want regular, open, and honest elections and value accountability more highly than efficiency in their government.

While many Gambians participate in community and political activities, two-thirds said they would never join a protest march. Few are in touch with their elected representatives, perhaps in part because they don’t think their views will be heard.