Elections in Gambia and Ghana Offer a Glimmer of Hope for African Democracy

After over 20 years of repressive rule, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh accepted defeat at the polls December 2. The highly unexpected development was a morsel of good news for African democracy and it thrilled Gambians.

“We have our country back,” the New York Times quoted taxi driver Modu Ceesay’s ecstatic proclamation. “This is our country, and now we have it.”

This country of just two million people likely faces a period of uncertainty. The winner in last week’s balloting, Adama Barrow, a real estate company owner who was once a security guard at a London department store, is something of a president-elect by default. Members of his party were sidelined by Jammeh, often through imprisonment or murder, in recent years.  Like Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari, Barrow managed to win the support from a coalition of parties. The proposition that democracy’s success rests on cooperation on shared goals rather than squabbling about differences will be tested in both countries. In addition, Jammeh’s willingness to accept electoral defeat rather than sabotage democracy and risk violence helped avert a crisis in Gambia , just as it did in Nigeria, when Goodluck Jonathan bowed out.  In that regard, neither Jammeh nor Jonathan really had a choice.

In a concession speech on Friday December 2, the ever-eccentric Jammeh, said, “I told you, Gambians, that I will not question the outcome of the results and will accept it. I did not wish to contest or find out why they did not vote for me. I leave that with God.”

In a recap of Jammeh’s rule, the Times described conduct typical of a petty despot.  Jammeh seized power in a coup in 1994, claimed to be able to cure AIDS with herbs, prayer and a banana, threatened to behead gay people, and ordered “sorcerers” to be hunted and killed. His repression of journalists and supporters of political opponents drew condemnations from human rights groups and the threat of international economic sanctions.

Sheriff Bojang Jr., a Gambian journalist who has lived in exile in Dakar, Senegal, for 15 years, was quoted in the Times as saying. “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.’”

Let us hope he is right but this universal aspiration remains elusive throughout Africa. The year 2016 was a landmark year for elections in Africa but there have been some notable disappointments. A campaign and election process fraught with irregularity extended to presidency-for-life of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. In the Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila has managed to postpone for a year or more elections that were to have taken place in late November.

The election in Ghana this week will be another benchmark for African democracy. Voters there will cast ballots in the seventh multi-party campaign since the end of military rule in 1992. The contest is a rematch between incumbent President John Dramani Mahama and opposition challenger Nana Akufo-Addo and has been hard-fought and close.

Even with more than 25 years of democratic transition and ample economic resources, voters in Ghana have high levels of distrust about their elected officials and deep frustration with high unemployment and high levels of inflation. Last year Ghana was forced to take an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for almost one billion dollars.

The possibility of a runoff vote could heighten tensions to the point of posing a serious threat to what has long been regarded as the continent’s democratic success story. On the other hand, the country’s electoral commission has long been taking steps to ensure balloting is as free and fair as possible, such as carefully reconsidering contested eligibility requirements for several candidates, cleaning up voter rolls and implementing a biometric system for registering voters.

Democracy depends on diligent preparation for free and fair elections, accountability in governance and elected officials who accept the will of voters. These conditions remain in short supply in Africa but Gambia’s recent experience and Ghana’s election this week could provide glimmers of hope.