Even though he was the one deciding to carry out democratic elections, the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh had no intentions of leaving office, once it became clear that he had lost. For more than a month, the Gambian people protested against this and struggled to get the president to accept the result. Young people from all over the country played a key role in these protests. The youth network of ActionAid, Activista, did the same. According to National Activista Coordinator, Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan:
“Activista is one of the most vibrant youth organizations in The Gambia. We started campaigning and leading the fight for a political change in our country. Using our already established structures across the country we could organize and activate young people from all of Gambia.”
The protests took place in the streets and on social media under the hashtag #GambiaHasDecided.
Personally, Saidykhan led the organizing and empowerment of young people so that they would believe that their protests could really have an impact. The protests went beyond the traditional means such as telephoning ministers and asking them to accept the election result. It also made use of WhatsApp and Facebook. The use of social media played a key role in helping the activists organize their protests.
The king who never thought he could lose
For more than 22 years, The Gambia has been ruled by Yahya Jammeh who came into power through a military coup in 1994. In 2016, Jammeh agreed to hold democratic elections in the absolute belief that as the ruler of the country, he would win. Much to his own disbelief, he lost. Muhammed Lamin Saidykhan, explains:
“Jammeh wanted to show to the world that The Gambia under his rule was truly democratic. But he undermined the whole system. He believed that he was the king and that he owned the country. So he introduced on-the-spot counting so that he could know who had voted for him in different areas of the country. That became an opportunity for us to get him out.”
Because the votes were accounted for on the spot, people in the electoral committee knew the result. The use of internet and international phone calls were blocked on election day, according to the BBC. However, news about the election result as it was accounted for still spread on social media and via satellite connections. Holding their breath, many followed the Independent Electoral Commission and recorded the results as they came in: Adama Barrow had won the election with 45 percent. If Jammeh hadn’t introduced the on-the-spot counting, he could have lied about the election result and probably stayed in power. Now, he’d lost that possibility. Saidykhan tells:
“You were the one who signed this law for on-the-spot counting to happen and now it happens, you need to accept it.”
What do we need? Justice!
However, Jammeh initially accepted the result but changed his mind a week later and rejected it. More than a month of mediation efforts by different stakeholders including ECOWAS leadership (The Economic Community of West African is a regional group of fifteen West African countries) failed. Jammeh finally gave in when he knew that soldiers from several West African countries led by Senegal had crossed the borders with the sole objective of arresting him. The former president reluctantly handed over power to the winner, Mr. Adama Barrow.
The protests and pressure from the Gambian youth were an important factor in securing a peaceful transition, even though Jammeh clinged to power. Now, the protests continue with demands that all former government officials leave office and are held accountable for the crimes that they are accused of having committed such as torture and arbitrary arrests. The protests unfold under slogans such as “What do we need? Justice!” and “No amnesty for Jammeh”. The ActionAid youth network, Activista, takes part in the ongoing protests fighting for the establishment of a democratic and accountable Gambia. Saydikhan explains:
“We want a situation where people can call on the ministers and ask anything that they don’t know about. We hope there can be a sort of transparency in everything. So we hope our country will be progressing in terms of democracy.”
The struggle for democracy has only just begun. And Activista will continue its work for a Gambia with a strong democracy.