IF democracy was looking a bit frayed around the world, then the stunning win by the opposition in Gambia may inject a bit of hope that the bad guys don’t always win.
The multiparty wave is three decades old in Africa. There have been victories, but many more setbacks.
Despite the first victory by the opposition at a Nigerian election in March 2015 by Muhammadu Buhari, the last two years have been torrid for democracy in Africa, as elsewhere in the world.
There were bitterly contested and disputed presidential elections in Chad, Gabon, and even Zambia, which otherwise has a history of mild politics.
TERM LIMIT RAIDED
There was also a wave of raids on the presidential term limit. It was overturned in Burundi in April 2015, plunging the country into a brutal conflict that continues, as President Pierre Nkurunziza pushed to stay in power.
In the Republic of Congo, amidst violence, in October 2015 President Denis Sassou Nguesso rammed through a constitution change in a referendum to remove term limits. In future, the president will serve up to three five-year terms.
In Rwanda, last December, the country voted by 98% to remove term limits, enabling President Paul Kagame to potentially continue being elected up to 2034.
By one estimate, almost 30 countries in Africa have contemplated the amendment of presidential term limits since 1998, and 13 so far have been successful.
In the US, on November 8 the tax-dodging, openly racist and misogynist billionaire Republican candidate Donald Trump, pulled off an upset for the ages by defeating the highly fancied and centrist Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton.
Earlier in the year on May 9, the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte a foul-mouthed vigilante who promised to defeat crime by killing tens of thousands of criminals.
He has not disappointed. He has since likened himself to the Nazi leader, saying he wants to kill millions of drug addicts, just as Hitler killed Jews during the Holocaust. Philippine law enforcement and vigilante groups have killed more than 3,800 people since Duterte took office on June 30. He has said that the many children killed in the drug war are “collateral damage”.
WHEN IT’S TIME, IT’S TIME
However, sometimes it does just seem that when it’s time, it’s time. And so an unlikely coalition of Gambia’s fractious opposition, helmed by a little-known leader, Adama Barrows, has ridden popular anger over Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule to victory.
While it wasn’t a surprise that Jammeh, who came to power in a coup 22 years ago, was defeated, what hardly anyone expected was that a relatively free vote would take place and that he would graciously concede defeat.
In a country that had never had a democratic transfer of power, all the signs ahead of the vote were bad.
Human rights organisations had warned that the conditions leading up to Thursday’s vote were not conducive to a free and fair election. There had been a spate of arrests of journalists and opposition activists in a country in which disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture are commonplace.
In April, a leading opposition activist, Solo Sandeng, was allegedly tortured to death by Gambia’s security forces, an event that was to galvanise the opposition.
Jammeh was famous for his erratic and eccentric ways. He previously said he had invented a herbal cure for HIV/AIDS that only works on Thursdays.
He has also arrested hundreds of people on suspicion of being witches or wizards and threatened to slit the throats of and decapitate homosexuals.
Hours before the election, the internet and international calls were blocked.
Gambia is perhaps not so unusual. Half of all Africans live in functioning multiparty systems, according to a new
The real question is whether pluralism improves people’s lives: “you can’t eat democracy” is a common aphorism. In 16 countries surveyed since 2002, “a steady, decade-long upward trend in demand for democracy has ended with a downward turn since 2012,” notes Afrobarometer, disconcertingly.
“The quality of elections helps to explain demand for democracy,” says the survey.
“African countries with high-quality elections are more likely to register increases in popular demand for democracy than countries with low-quality elections.”
On Friday, in mainland Africa’s smallest country cuts half-way through Senegal like a snake, a bright democratic light shone like a star in a dark sky.
What happens next could be a political storyline that was inconceivable just four days ago.
-Additional reporting IRIN