By now, we should probably be accustomed to expected unexpected election results. Between Brexit, the popular rejection of the Colombian peace referendum and, of course, the US election voters have defied expectations across the world. Now, we can add one more result to the 2016 roster of election stunners: voters in the tiny west African country of The Gambia have shown the door to an authoritarian kleptocrat who ruled the country with an iron fist for the last 22 years.
Yahya Jammeh has lost–and apparently conceded–the country’s first election since he came to power in a coup in 1994. Needless to say, this is a huge surprise. Just a day before, Jammeh was flexing his authoritarian muscles, banning protests and shutting down Internet connections across the country. There was wide expectation that despite some protests over the summer, he would rig the elections or otherwise suppress voters to engineer another victory. Indeed, at one point he said he had a “billion year mandate” to rule the country. Needless to say, he did not last that long.
The Gambia is one of the smallest countries in the world. It sits on Africa’s Atlantic coast and has a population of just two million. I’ve called it the Worst Dictatorship You have Never Heard Of. Since 1994 it’s been run as a classic kleptocracy, with the autocratic president and his inner circle looting state resources to their own personal benefit. All the while, human rights abuses run rampant and dissent violently surpassed. Jammeh has kept his country poor and even before today’s election, they have been voting with their feet. Indeed, Gambia as small as it is, is a major source of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe.
But despite widespread fears of fraud, it seems that the voting proceeded peacefully and that the opposition candidate around which various factions united, a businessman named Adama Barrow, has emerged victorious. If he follows through with his handover, it would be only the third peaceful handover of power in Gambia since 1962.
The implications of this surprise result could be felt throughout the region. Jeffrey Smith, quoted above, is an American human rights advocate and founding director of Vanguard Africa, a DC-based political consulting firm that relentlessly supported the Gambian opposition. I spoke to him over the summer for a podcast episode about the situation in the Gambia. At the time, he admitted to me that “the odds are stacked against the political opposition.” But he also stressed that politics in Gambia are characterized by unpredictability and “this movement that is gaining momentum has exceeded all expectations.”
It appears that expectations have most definitely been exceeded. And this surprise victory may give pause to other leaders in the region who similarly believe they have an indefinite mandate from their people.
If you want to learn more about the Gambia and why this election is such a shocker, have a listen to this podcast episode with Jeffrey Smith.