From dictatorship to democracy: lessons from The Gambia

Published on 18 December 2019

Jhoomar Mehta

We live in a world that is experiencing struggles around democracy, women’s rights and gender justice. The story of the Gambia sends across a strong message about all three of these issues at a time when democracies around the world are under threat. From a situation of a devastating dictatorship to a very promising future, the current chapter of the Gambia’s story is about the fundamentals of hope.

To share the story, the IDS Annual Lecture was delivered by Her Excellency, Vice President of Gambia, Dr. Isatou Touray, who is also an IDS alumna. The theme of the lecture was, ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy: The Role of Women in the Politics of The Gambia’. She became the first female presidential candidate for The Gambia in 2016. A woman who joined politics to inspire women leaders and change the system, she led the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) until the practice was banned in the country.

The Gambia enters its darkest chapter

During the annual lecture Vice President Touray explained that by 1994, the government led by President Dawda Jawara had been in power for almost three decades (1965-1994). Gambia enjoyed a thriving democracy, at a time when countries in West Africa were experiencing coups. The country upheld values of peace, stability and hospitality, and was even called the ‘smiling coast of Africa’. However, the constitution at that time did not consider the issue of time limits, which allowed governments to overstay in power. The government started to lose its grip on power which resulted in emergence of factions and rivalries over who will succeed President Jawara, eventually fragmenting the ruling party.

Taking advantage of the political crisis, Gambia’s first president was overthrown in a military coup led by Yahya Jammeh in 1994. Jammeh’s initial interim two-month stint as the leader of the country did not end for another 22 years. The country saw itself to a trajectory of events; instead of building upon the achievements of the first republic, the dictatorial regime started dismantling democratic institutions. The 1997 constitution was amended 52 times, allowing for the erosion of civil liberties, constraints on political opponents and tightening of power in the hands of President Jammeh.

The fight against FGM

Civil society was the only option through which the real Gambian consensus could be represented. Dr. Touray worked with many such groups and was at the forefront when it came to the welfare of women. It was the Badung Conference of 1995 – a meeting of Asian and African states – that gave her an opportunity to bring the voice of Gambian women in focus. There was a severe need for intervention in critical areas like maternal mortality, early marriage and traditional practices like FGM, which impacted the wellbeing of women. These concerns resulted in the low enrolment of girls in schools. Post Badung, the government was convinced of the need for an intervention. Therefore, a programme for free education at the primary level for girls, with partial support at the secondary level was set up.

However, the government responded in a hostile manner when it came to FGM. It promoted the practice and arrested those who advocated against it. The ban on opposing political parties was lifted in 2001, but no one came to support the anti-FGM sentiment because of the popular belief that it was an Islamic command. It was left to the female leaders of the country to fight off this societal evil. Dr.Touray and her team managed to reach the remotest regions of the country educating them about the harmful effects of FGM and the effectiveness of women participation in decision making. The movement received major support from within and outside the country, forcing President Jammeh to ban the practice across The Gambia in 2015.

Taking The Gambia back

For 22 years, the political opponents failed when it came to the issue of leadership. The dictatorial regime took advantage of this lack of unity and kept shifting the balance of power. The Gambia became a totalitarian state with the army and intelligence playing police in civilian matters. The political landscape was dominated by men, even though it was the women who played a critical role in putting them there (women constitute 58% of voters in the Gambia). The call for change was loud and clear. The only challenge left was how to effect a change in a non-violent manner. Using participatory approaches, ‘Team Isatou’ was formed to challenge the male-dominated landscape and make women a part of the political process.

The 2016 general elections would be the real showdown. The Gambia knew it did not want to nurture the dictatorial regime anymore and the international community stood by the popular consensus. However, the political parties remained divided on the issue of leadership. They believed a lack of unity and the first past the post system would only give President Jammeh legitimacy for a fifth term. The politicians had to put aside their differences for the better of their nation. The outcome was applauded by Gambians as they rallied behind the leader which emerged.

After 22 years of fragmented leadership and brutal dictatorship, Gambia voted for democracy. The elections brought a sounding victory for ‘Coalition 2016’ and Adam Barrow took oath as the third president of The Gambia in 2017. Dr. Isatou Toray now serves as the vice-president of this third republic. The international community was quick to recognise and support the positive change.

The current government of The Gambia hopes to continue to make positive changes and are already trying to affect change on a world stage, recently leading the case against Myanmar with the allegation of genocide against Rohingya Muslims at the International Court of Justice.

Jhoomar Mehta is studying for an MA in Globalisation, Business and Development at the Institute of Development Studies




The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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