Early hopes that Gambia can prove a bright spot in 2016 by moving to a democracy seem to be hanging in the balance.


President Yahya Jammeh’s U-turn on accepting the election results that were won by his challenger Adama Barrow throws this small West African country into more turmoil.  Jammeh’s latest move to prop up his rule has been to put troops onto the streets.

It is widely thought that Jammeh’s change of heart came after Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, chair of Mr Barrow’s coalition, threatened to prosecute the President.  Jammeh had said he would return to his farm following the conclusion of his dictatorship, once threatening to rule for ‘a billion years’!  But instead of emulating the Roman politician and dictator Cincinnatus, Jallow-Tambajang claimed he would start an uprising from the farm.

Though a certain naivety in political discourse after Jammeh’s long autocratic rule might be expected, it is common sense not to threaten a rival when the latter still holds onto the levers of power and you do not.  Had Mr Barrow and his allies contented themselves with fairly neutral statements such as returning to the Commonwealth until his swearing-in, things may have gone well.  However, none of that is now certain given the unpredictable eccentricity of Mr Jammeh who has claimed to have invented a cure for AIDS.

Mr Jammeh is certainly guilty of heinous human rights abuses documented by western NGOs and punishment would be fitting.  In a new democracy though, a greater source of stability both internally and further afield, may be to not prosecute your political opponents.  Mr Jammeh could not have committed his crimes without significant help from others who now have something to fear from the accession of Mr Barrow, and thus would be inclined to stir up trouble.  Many despots also tend to cling to power because they fear their rivals will take revenge once in government.  The more cases where this does not happen, the greater the likelihood that democracy will spread.

Even in mature democracies, it is accepted as not the done thing to attempt to imprison those whose viewpoints differ to your own or who have been election rivals.  One of Barack Obama’s first decisions as president was to give amnesty to all US intelligence agents who had committed torture.  Even Donald Trump has gone back on his campaign promise to appoint a special prosecutor to send Hillary Clinton to prison.

One striking example from the African continent was the acquittal of Frederick Chiluba, former president of Zambia on corruption charges.  The trial lasted from 2003 to 2009 and several of his aides and even Chiluba’s own wife were found guilty but Chiluba himself walked free.  Transparency International Zambia lambasted the decision.  Chiluba was also not impressed at the attempt to convict him but in not going to prison, Zambia’s fledgling democracy was left on a firmer footing.

South Africa, a country with sharp divisions and a controversial history, found a way to confront the demons of the past without them imperilling the post-apartheid constitutional settlement.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) gave immunity from criminal proceedings to all those who appeared before it.  Many harrowing stories were recounted and sometimes those who had committed atrocities broke down in acts of contrition.  Others showed no remorse for their actions and such brazen attitudes enraged those who wanted ‘justice’ of a harder kind.  The TRC was not perfect and reconciliation was not always forthcoming but it provided an outlet for past tensions to be aired peacefully rather than violently.

Whatever now happens to Gambia, the best course of action would be for the opposition to grant Mr Jammeh and his associates immunity for historic crimes (while leaving open a legal avenue should he rebel in the future).  It may not seem like justice in the short term, but in the long term the existence of an established democracy will justify that decision.

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