What Gambian politics should teach us about democracy


Young Gambians celebrating the election result. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The attention of the world has zeroed in on one property mogul who defied the odds to win an election against an imbedded elite no one gave him a chance against. But the historic election victory of Adama Barrow as President of The Gambia this year was probably not the one you were thinking of.

You could be forgiven for having missed the developments in The Gambia over December and January when the world was shaken by an election not involving this tiny nation on the west coast of Africa. Its election was a tiny democratic exercise involving just more than 520,000 votes (for perspective, the US election involved more than 130 million). But for what it lacks in size it makes up for in symbolism, serving to reaffirm an important message about the value of democracy to a hostile world.

On the 2nd December last year it emerged that Adama Barrow, leader of the Opposition, had decisively won the election against existing President Yayah Jammeh, thus ending his rule 22 years in, despite having once claimed a Billion year mandate from Allah. Jammeh flip-flopped in blind panic at the result; he conceded, then decided he wasn’t quite done and regained military backing, then fled the country and exiled himself as soon as Senegalese troops crossed the border. Joyous Gambians lined the streets to welcome their new President who had to have his inauguration in Senegal and miss his son’s funeral in fear of his life. Once a security guard for Argos when studying in London, Barrow brings refreshing humility and compassion to a role carried out with arrogance and a lack of regard for human rights by his two predecessors since 1964. But the real hope for The Gambia lies not in this new President, but in the promise of a future that the people have a say in.

At the same time as these events unfolded over December and January, the world was reeling from a year of political upheaval. First Brexit, then Trump — this was too far for much of the liberal intelligentsia. So much so that fashionable thought turned against democracy itself.

In the US the New Yorker openly publicised Caleb Crain’s book The Case Against Democracy in a review, normalising an argument usually reserved for genuine fascists and actual dictators, maybe even Mr Jammeh himself.The Guardian – that bastion of liberal thought – let George Monbiot explain ‘Why Elections are bad for Democracy’. Other progressives spoke loftily of the warnings written in Plato’s Republic of tyranny coming about from too much democracy; a thinly veiled defence of political elitism where only the rich and educated can vote. Even the eminent Matthew Parris in The Spectator conceded that he had lost faith in democracy because ‘it is producing results I profoundly dislike’.

The opinion pages of newspapers weren’t the only places the assault on democracy took place. Facebook and Twitter feeds were clogged up with posts bemoaning the very idea of universal suffrage. Pious denouncing of Trump and Brexit (reasonable sentiments laid out by reasonable people) soon descended into the wholesale smearing of entire demographics as incompetent and unworthy of the vote.

Be clear — this was not a sensible national debate on the value of referendums, nor was it just a display of animosity to The Donald (though it undoubtedly was for some). It was a shout that democracy was now no longer a definite and resounding force for good.

And so followed a curious phenomenon where the nation with the Mother of Parliaments and the Greatest Democracy in the World joined together in protest against the will of The People; yet simultaneously The People in a tiny West African country celebrated passionately that their will had been carried out. From Leeds to Los Angeles people lined the streets bitterly decrying their democracy; in Banjul and across Gambia people lined the streets rejoicing in theirs.

The great people of Gambia have taught us an important lesson. The simple pleasures of being able to vote in a politician saying the things we agree with, or being able to vote out a politician we no longer want in power, are surely things we should be thankful for. Who could have the heart to explain why ancient political theory makes a better case for elitism than modern democracy to, say, an ecstatic Gambian teenager celebrating the first change of President they have ever witnessed?

In the same way, we should celebrate the freedom that grants us the right to contribute a vote and be heard as an equal — especially when that popular vote doesn’t go our way.

The uplifting hope of democracy was eloquently explained by a Gambian activist: ‘Now young people believe this country is mine. Before, the President used to say, “I own this country”. Now, everybody has this sense of, “The country belongs to me “.’

At last, some good news.


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