REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Lack of constitutional reform stalls The Gambia’s democratic transition

Political divisions over limiting presidential power and terms in office have brought the process to a standstill.

The Gambia’s ambitious transition to democracy started when President Adama Barrow was elected in 2016, ending Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule. But socio-political disagreements are preventing the country from fully breaking away from its autocratic past.

The Gambia could become a model for democratic governance in a region affected by coups, democratic backsliding and political instability. Efforts have been made to implement reforms that could redefine the country’s politics and governance. The Gambia’s democratic potential is clear from its formulation of a draft constitution anchored, among other things, in human rights, the rule of law and institutional checks and balances. 

External partners and many Gambians view the draft constitution as ‘the mother of all reforms.’ It provided the basis for security sector reform, transitional justice and judicial and other institutional changes. The draft also introduced presidential term limits, curtailed presidential powers and strengthened judicial powers and the Independent Electoral Commission. 

However, in September 2020, the National Assembly rejected the draft, which was the product of a two-year consultative process involving Gambian citizens, including those in the diaspora. That rejection has had significant implications for the whole transition process.

The draft limited the president to two terms of five years each, consecutive or not – meaning Barrow would not be eligible to run in 2026. As candidate of the coalition that defeated Jammeh, he promised to step down after a three-year (2017-2020) transitional period, but then ran for another term in December 2021.

Under the draft constitution, Barrow would not be eligible to run for president in 2026

The main opposition, the United Democratic Party (UDP), has expressed support for the rejected draft and vowed to oppose any amendments. However, Barrow’s political allies in and outside the ruling National People’s Party (NPP) reject a retroactive application of the presidential term limit, saying it should start from the date the new constitution is adopted. 

The draft constitution also introduces higher requirements for presidential candidacy and electoral victory. A presidential candidate must have a university degree and win an absolute majority of valid votes. The latter is especially significant as it could necessitate a run-off.

Moreover, for the first time, Gambians in the diaspora would have the right to participate in both presidential and parliamentary elections. Proposals for a separate diaspora constituency were, however, rejected. 

For Barrow and his allies, winning an absolute majority in future elections could prove difficult. The NPP, formed in 2020 following Barrow’s decision to end an alliance with the UDP, doesn’t have enough support for a one-off victory on its own. In April 2022, it failed to win a convincing majority in the National Assembly elections. The party currently holds 24 of the National Assembly’s 58 seats, including five nominated by Barrow. 

Furthermore, the draft constitution subjects the president’s nominations of ministerial posts, key law enforcement and security positions, and the Chief Justice, to approval by the National Assembly. The president would also no longer be able to nominate some National Assembly Members. A total of 53 (of 69) members would be elected from single-member constituencies, 14 women would be voted for separately (two from each administrative area), and two members would be nominated by the national federation for persons with disabilities.

Disagreements over these and other provisions, including those on the Gambian state’s secularity or otherwise, mean the country remains governed by its 1997 Constitution, also known as the Jammeh Constitution. Mediation efforts, including those led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja, have failed to break the deadlock.

With no roadmap for restarting the reform process, Barrow is legally eligible for a third term

The Barrow-allied 23 National Assembly Members who voted to reject the draft seem unlikely to change course, meaning another attempt to pass it would fail.

With no clear strategy and roadmap for restarting the reform process, the absence of term limits under the current constitution makes Barrow legally eligible for another term. So far, he hasn’t been definitive on a possible 2026 candidacy, but the potential for a controversial and destabilising third term cannot be ruled out.

Deciding not to run could reduce tensions and provide a political impetus for restarting the transition. Such a decision would require Barrow to select a successor, which would no doubt spark divisions in the NPP and among allies who may either have presidential ambitions or favour particular individuals.

Nevertheless, another Barrow run would certainly deepen tensions, creating political problems that could require an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervention – as happened during the December 2016 and January 2017 post-election crisis.

Another Barrow run would deepen political problems, possibly necessitating ECOWAS’ intervention

The nature of such a crisis would depend on the position taken by the opposition. It could accept Barrow’s candidacy and mobilise to defeat him in the polls, or organise mass protests or other actions that might undermine the country’s stability. 

Post-Jammeh, The Gambia has an opportunity to reshape its politics, institutions and governance. But this can only happen if the country’s political actors and external partners urgently work to end the current stalemate. Political actors especially should demonstrate greater sincerity, adopt a collaborative and consensus-building approach, and be prepared to compromise on thorny issues. 

ECOWAS’s 2017 intervention and continued maintenance of the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia has given the regional bloc considerable political and military influence. This could be leveraged to play a more active mediation role in breaking the deadlock. Specifically, it could build consensus on key provisions of the draft constitution and help draft a roadmap for completing the reform process. 

Continuing to govern under the 1997 Constitution risks undermining the efforts of the Gambian people and international partners. Renewed instability, six years after ECOWAS intervened in the country, would further erode the institution’s credibility as it struggles to manage political crises and unconstitutional changes of government in West Africa.

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