The democratisation process in The Gambia remains fragile

In the last week of July, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) is to undertake a field visit to The Gambia to track the progress made since the ousting of former president Yahya Jammeh in January 2017.

The fall of Jammeh following the presidential election in December 2016 had raised the hopes of Gambians and the international community. At that time, transitioning peacefully towards democracy seemed the greatest challenge; more difficult than healing the wounds caused by 22 years of authoritarian rule. However, almost three years after its first democratic transition, The Gambia faces many challenges that undermine the democratisation process.

Persistent socio-political divisions are slowing down the implementation of initiatives and reforms defined in the National Development Plan

Indeed, despite the democratic reforms initiated by the administration of President Adama Barrow with international support, persistent socio-political divisions are slowing down the implementation of initiatives and reforms defined in the National Development Plan (NDP).

Launched in February 2018 by the new government, the NDP was designed following consultations with members of the government, civil society organisations, the private sector and international stakeholders. It is meant to achieve good governance, revitalise the economy, improve social cohesion and advance national reconciliation. In this regard, various initiatives and reforms have been initiated, including a transitional justice process, security sector reform and a constitutional review.

A divisive transitional justice process

The transitional justice process was launched in January 2019 with the hearings of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which is essential for national unity and the consolidation of democracy. The commission was officially established in October 2018 with a two-year mandate to investigate and record evidence of human rights violations during the 22 years of Jammeh’s rule. It is also tasked with making recommendations.

The commission opened its fifth session on 10 June without the support of Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) or some of his former collaborators. They accuse the government of using the commission to launch a witch-hunt against them.

While several senior party members and senior military officials have agreed to testify before the commission, the refusal of former military junta member Yankuba Turay to do so shows that the transitional justice process is facing resistance. In addition, the commission’s proceedings have been increasingly criticised since Turay’s arrest. Turay was detained on the charge of murdering former minister Ousman Koro Ceesay while the hearings were still ongoing.

The revelations by Gambian women accusing Jammeh of rape and sexual assault have put additional pressure on the commission

In addition, the high-profile revelations by Gambian women accusing Jammeh of rape and sexual assault following an investigation by the non-governmental organisations Human Rights Watch and TRIAL International have put additional pressure on the commission to shed light on alleged sexual abuses perpetrated under the former regime.

These allegations, which were denied by the APRC, are perceived in some corners as being part of a defamation and demonisation campaign against the party, which in turn contributes to a heightened sense of selective justice.

Sensitive security sector reform

Security sector reform (SSR) is another key aspect of The Gambia’s stabilisation process. The programme has been underway since September 2017 with the objective of creating an effective, professional and responsible security sector. It was established in coordination with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Mission in The Gambia, the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN), all of which are members of the SSR steering committee. While the country has adopted its first national security policy, effective implementation of the SSR has been slow.

While the country has adopted its first national security policy, effective implementation of the SSR has been slow.

This is owing to two factors. Firstly, there is the issue of the downsizing of the army. A 2017 UN Security Sector Assessment report revealed not only several deficiencies, such as a lack of training, the politicisation of the army and a loosely defined legal framework, but also the need to reduce the size of the security services, especially the army.

This downsizing – advocated by a number of partners – remains a sensitive issue. The Gambian army, with an estimated 6 500 troops, is mainly composed of members of Jammeh’s Diola ethnic group. During his decades in power, Jammeh tended to promote military officers based on loyalty rather than skills. The soldiers belonging to the Diola community fear that they will be the first targeted in the recommended downsizing of the army.

Secondly, the fact that some members of the military accused of human rights violations during Jammeh’s rule are still in active duty also slows down the SSR process. Their continued presence in the army is causing unease among the troops, which puts the Gambian government in a predicament. Some of them also refuse to cooperate with the commission, which threatens not only to undermine the transitional justice process but also to further hamper the implementation of SSR.

A tense political climate

Against the backdrop of the upcoming 2021 presidential election, rivalry between the country’s two leading political figures – Barrow and the leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP), Ousainou Darboe – continues to fuel tension. Barrow’s stated intention to serve a five-year term and then run for a second term is believed to be at the root of tensions within the coalition, especially with Darboe, who may also harbour presidential ambitions.

The fact that Barrow sacked Darboe as vice-president and fired two ministers affiliated with the UDP confirmed Barrow’s split from his former party. He is suspected of seeking to transform the Barrow Youth for National Development (a youth movement formed within the UDP) into a fully-fledged political party and use it as a launching pad for his candidacy in the upcoming presidential election.

Consensus on the duration of the transition must be reached to ease tensions in the political arena

The coalition for which Barrow ran as a candidate in the 2016 presidential election is divided over how the 2016 political agreement should be implemented. The document was signed by seven opposition parties and provides for a three-year transitional period. Barrow now says the Constitution allows him to govern until 2021, for a five-year term, but some members of the coalition are calling for a presidential election in December 2019.

Support from the international community

Consensus on the duration of the transition must be reached to ease tensions in the political arena. To this end, the AU should encourage actors to continue their political dialogue, as The Gambia can only implement the reforms indispensable for its stability and effectively revive its economy in a peaceful political context marked by stronger national cohesion.

The Gambia stands at a crucial juncture in its transition process. Two-and-a-half years after Jammeh’s withdrawal, the ongoing democratisation process remains fragile. The involvement of civil society and the government in raising public awareness of democratic issues and inter-community dialogue, as well as efforts to include all communities, could foster an effective transition and a peaceful reconciliation process.

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