Free, but not fair?

The day of the local government elections in Banjul, on April 4, I went out onto the streets with my notebook, tape recorder and camera. Before I stepped out of my compound, I was greeted by concerned citizens wondering where I was going with all the equipment. When I told them my mission they begged for my safety, for my family to ever see me again, to not go.

One man said, “you don’t just show up places in this country otherwise you might not ever show up in any other places ever again.”

In the Gambia, people are afraid to speak publically, or even privately, of political affairs that may be contradictory to President Yahya Jammeh’s beliefs. Jammeh overthrew the previous government in a 1994 coup, and won the 1996 presidential vote by 55 percent after banning the main opposition parties. He has been in power since.

In Gambia freedom of the press is limited. The country ranks 152 on the World Press Freedom Index and journalists work under threatening conditions. For instance, in 2012 the Gambia received international criticism when President Yahya Jammeh announced that 47 prisoners on death row would be executed. Two independent newspapers, The Standard and Daily News published petitions and letters to stop the executions. The National Intelligence Agency raided both organizations and ordered their closure, seemingly due to these actions, according to Reporters Without Borders. Two other Gambian journalists sought permission to hold a peaceful demonstration via the interior ministry and were instead arrested on charges of conspiracy, then released on bail.

Weak democracy

While elections in the Gambia are free in the sense that people are not forced to vote for particular candidates, they cannot be considered fair. As the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) noted in a 2011 statement, its fact-finding mission to Gambia before the presidential election “paint[ed] a picture of intimidation, an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power, the lack of neutrality of state and para-statal institutions, and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.”

Sources who monitor elections and political performance said that any day they can potentially be arrested. “We work in a minefield. . . literally scared [of] what is going to happen next” said a source who asked not to be named due to safety concerns.

Additionally, when it comes to elections, the ruling party — the APRC (Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction) — has a much stronger advantage than its opponents because of its access to public and state resources. And the opposition parties receive little to no media coverage in the run-up to local elections.

As elections move further away from being democratic, political space and participation begin to shrink, opposition parties boycott elections, and apathy increases. This year, voter turnout for the municipal election in Banjul was reportedly less than 50 percent. In 2008, it was a disappointing 29.4 percent.

All these factors point in the direction of the grounds for a dictatorship, rather than a democratic state, to emerge. When one political player dominates the field, with no or weak opposition, this means there is only one idea for the development of a country. This can be very dangerous, leading to more corruption, less transparency, and the collapse of social services.

With the scale of democracy and faith within governmental structures diminishing across Banjul and the rest of the country, the Gambia is in a very fragile state.

This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series.

More on Banjul and Gambia:

Working for water in Banjul

Investing in Gambia’s youth

Voters in Banjul not swayed by infrastructure needs

Photo: children on the street in Banjul. Emily Smith.


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