BSR: Zimbabwe and Gambia – a tale of two election crises


The Gambian crisis 2016

On 2 December 2016, social media was awash with discussion of a peculiar election in the Gambia, the tiny country of less than 2 million people nestled on the West African coast, with Senegal covering more than two thirds of its perimeter and the Atlantic taking up the remainder. It’s a unique electoral system in which marbles, not ballot papers, are the stock in trade in the race for political power. Instead of voting by marking a ballot paper and placing it in the ballot box, as is the case everywhere else, in the Gambia a voter picks a marble and inserts it in a container representing a preferred candidate. Each container has a different colour, representing a candidate. After counting, the candidate with the most marbles wins.

This very different election spawned numerous jokes. Most outsiders laughed at the seemingly simplistic system – some even called it “primitive” – but the country’s long-serving leader, Yahya Jammeh defended it as a “rig-proof” system which could not be manipulated. It has its benefits: those who cannot read and write do not need assistance to vote, as is the case with the ballot paper. One of the problems associated with the electoral system in Zimbabwe is the phenomenon of “assisted voting” which the laws permit. There have been numerous complaints that literate voters in the rural areas have in the past been coerced into declaring illiteracy at the polling station, paving the way for ruling party operatives to “assist” them and in the process breach voting secrecy and ensure that the vote goes to the ruling party. There is no excuse for such tactics in the Gambian election.

Many outsiders were resigned to Jammeh prevailing again, as had been doing ever since he usurped power in a coup in 1994. In charge for 22 years and imposing an iron-grip on the country during that period, the eccentric Jammeh, who in the past claimed to have discovered a cure for HIV/AIDS, was already seen as a winner long before the elections in the eyes of many outsiders. It was just another African charade, which would grant yet another dictator the legitimacy he needs to continue brutalising and impoverishing his people. The Gambians, though, had other plans for their dictator.

Soon enough, it became apparent that Jammeh had lost the election. The winner was Adama Barrow, the leader of a coalition of the opposition parties. The ground-breaking outcome assumed greater significance when Jammeh conceded defeat. It was a surprise, but one of a pleasant kind. A video clip of Jammeh openly and humbly conceding to his conqueror, Barrow, soon went viral on social media. The brutal dictator even sounded good-natured and relaxed as he delivered the concession. Those who had mocked the Gambian electoral system as “primitive” were soon washing raw egg off their faces. The many doubters who had resigned themselves to Jammeh’s victory long before the election had begun had to acknowledge that their judgment had been premature and uninformed.

The world was already showering Jammeh with praise for the gracious manner in which he had accepted defeat. Before the election, Jammeh had said he would rule for a billion years “if Allah says so”. But the election result showed Allah had said no and he had duly accepted this divine judgment. It looked like a smooth transition was in the offing. Some already had Jammeh as a prime candidate for the Mo Ibrahim Prize, an award given to an African leader judged to have excelled in advancing the cause of democracy on the continent. It would have been ironic that Jammeh, a man who had presided over a brutal dictatorship for 22 years, would suddenly be hoisted as a paragon of democracy for doing what is normal elsewhere in the world.

But in the midst of all this euphoria, the off-centred Jammeh soon resorted to type. A few days after the remarkable concession, he performed a spectacular somersault, claiming that the election had not been free and fair and instantly declaring it null and void. Jammeh demanded a new election, accusing the electoral commission of running a flawed election. He claimed to have taken his case to the Supreme Court, challenging the result. The world was, once again, taken aback by Jammeh’s about-turn. Those who had doubted the sincerity of his concession felt vindicated. Jammeh was an eccentric character who could not be trusted on his word alone. There were protests as people voiced their anger at Jammeh’s actions and the security forces were brought onto the streets.

So for more than 4 weeks, Jammeh held on, refusing to concede. Fearing for his security, Barrow skipped the border into neighbouring Senegal. Regional leaders converged and intervened, via the agency of ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States. It was a concerted effort. Meanwhile, Ghana also held an election which had passed smoothly, uncharacteristic, on a continent where elections are fraught with irregularities and glitches over transfer of power. In a show of maturity, the winner of the Ghanaian elections, President Akuffo-Addo let his immediate predecessor and the man he had defeated, former President John Mahama, to continue as part of the ECOWAS mediation team in the Gambia. The symbolism of this gesture did not register on Jammeh’s mind. He remained adamant. It was not until the threat of military force became imminent that he eventually gave in, albeit with a package that promised protection during his uncertain life after office. Meanwhile, Barrow had already been sworn in as President of The Gambia at the country’s embassy in neighbouring Senegal. Finally, the new President returned home to commence his duties and hopefully usher a new path for the Gambian people.

The Zimbabwean crisis 2008

Back in 2008, Zimbabwe found itself at a cross-roads. It was a deep crisis, spawned by a controversial and inconclusive election. Robert Mugabe, then in power for 28 years, lost in a dramatic election to his nemesis, Morgan Tsvangirai. It was the first time that he had lost a national election in his long political career. In another first, Mugabe’s party, ZANU PF, had also lost the parliamentary vote to Tsvangirai’s party, the MDC-T. However, the election was marred by serious irregularities. It took 6 weeks before the presidential election results were announced. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission infamously claimed to have been doing “meticulous verification” during that inordinate delay. Many, with reason, suspected that Mugabe had lost that election by a wide margin and that his minions were cooking up the result in order to produce an outcome that would deprive Tsvangirai of the presidency and give Mugabe a second run. Zimbabwean law provides that the winner of the presidential election must attain an absolute majority of the total number of votes cast (more than fifty percent of the total votes). In the absence of this, there has to be a run-off election between the winner and first runner up.

After the inordinate delay, the electoral commission announced that there had to be a run-off election between Tsvangirai and Mugabe. This run-off election was set for 27 June 2008. The run-up to that election was characterised by egregious violence meted upon Tsvangirai’s supporters. It was an orgy of violence in which the military authorities allegedly had a big hand. Scores of MDC supporters were killed, tortured and maimed during the campaign. Thousands were displaced and had their properties burnt and destroyed. The violence prompted Tsvangirai to withdraw from the run-off election. The sham election went ahead and Mugabe was declared to have won. However, no one apart from Mugabe and his close circle of acolytes took it seriously.

Meanwhile, SADC, the regional group of Southern African countries, watched events in Zimbabwe, initially from a distance and later, when it was clear that it was a sham, they intervened but only to work out a settlement between the parties. They appointed President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, to do the mediation to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis. Mbeki’s efforts produced a Global Political Agreement (GPA) under which an Inclusive Government was consummated. It was a similar to a deal that had been stitched up in Kenya months earlier. Under this arrangement, Mugabe retained the presidency while Tsvangirai took the newly-created post of Prime Minister. Cabinet ministers were drawn from the three parties that formed the Inclusive Government. That uneasy coalition of discordant voices went on to run the country’s affairs until 2013.

The fallacy of hindsight

Zimbabweans have been comparing the handling of their crisis in 2008 with the way the crisis in the Gambia was handled. Some observers are sure that there are things that happened in the Gambia that should have also happened in Zimbabwe. But while hindsight often provides a good view, it can also be misleading. Any comparison between two historical events and experiences should be nuanced, taking into account the different contextual circumstances. Oft-times, when comparisons between events and experiences are made, the assumption is that everything else remains constant, notwithstanding the differences in time, space and surrounding circumstances. Furthermore, while a comparison between the Zimbabwean and Gambian experiences might form an interesting academic exercise, far better for practical purposes would be a “lessons learnt” exercise from the Gambian experience. What could Zimbabwe learn from the Gambian experience, particularly as the country prepares for an election in 2018? This is what this essay attempts to do, and in doing so, it will make reference to events on 2008.

Role of peers

An important feature in both the Zimbabwean and Gambian crises was the role of regional peers. In the case of Zimbabwe it was SADC, and for Gambia, it was ECOWAS. Their approaches to the crises could not have been more different. Compared to its counterpart, SADC went for accommodation rather than confrontation. ECOWAS made it clear from the beginning that Jammeh’s conduct was unacceptable. SADC’s approach was to accommodate Mugabe. Its approach was heavily diluted by the influence of President Mbeki, who was more sympathetic to Mugabe, a benefactor during the anti-apartheid struggle. For Mbeki, the problem of a compromised election seemed minor as he believed Mugabe was being punished by the West for carrying out an historic mission to redistribute land in Zimbabwe. For him, Mugabe was resisting the West’s regime-change agenda. Mbeki has since then revealed that the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had mooted military intervention in Zimbabwe, which he had rejected.

For Mbeki, the Zimbabwean crisis was therefore, not just an electoral issue, but a broader question within the context of relations between Africa and the West. By contrast, no such issues weighed upon the Gambian election, where Jammeh was known for his weird behaviour and human rights violations. ECOWAS was simply dealing with a peer who had gone rogue. None of the ECOWAS leaders had good reason to back him. There was no serious suggestion that his troubles were orchestrated by the West. There was nothing “revolutionary” that he was doing that might have drawn sympathy or attention to him from his peers. There was no baggage of regime change and anti-imperialist rhetoric that were associated with the Zimbabwean crisis. That SADC and Mbeki lost a clear view of the issue at hand, where a dictator was refusing to leave power in pursuit of self-interest was largely due to Mugabe’s ability to create this thick smokescreen. It is something Jammeh failed to do.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that ECOWAS was far more aggressive and firmer in its approach compared to SADC. It did not give Jammeh a chance to recover any ground. Part of this is that ECOWAS leaders worked actively and collectively as a group, whereas SADC chose to rely on one facilitator. Different West African heads of state were involved in efforts to coax Jammeh out of power. The pressure upon Jammeh was relentless. With ECOWAS, Jammeh had nowhere to hide. It is far easier to influence one person than a group of leaders with the same collective message. Mugabe had the fortune of having Mbeki, a sympathiser, as a sole mediator of the crisis. This influenced the approach and outcome of the negotiations that led to the GPA. Mbeki and SADC’s approach was a rescue effort for Mugabe, while ECOWAS’s approach was a determined effort to show Jammeh the door. ECOWAS was aggressive whereas SADC was more passive. ECOWAS showed that when dealing with entrenched dictators, you have to be firm and relentless because they do not give up easily.

Use of force

Students of international law and international relations have a new case study on question of legitimate use of force and intervention in domestic affairs. The Gambian crisis showed us a bold move by a regional grouping to apply force in order to resolve a domestic affair. The legality and legitimacy of this action will no doubt be a subject of discussion in many a seminar room. The significance of what ECOWAS did is not lost on those who follow these issues closely.

Unlike SADC, ECOWAS went for direct military intervention in the Gambia. This was a bold move, which demonstrated to Jammeh and members of the establishment that ECOWAS meant business. A critical feature of this is that this was not Western intervention to resolve a crisis as has been the case before. In former French colonies, the French military has intervened during periods of crisis raising all sorts of difficult questions. This was a distinctly African intervention, led by and decided by Africans – encapsulated by the oft-repeated cliché, “African solutions for African problems”. For many observers, finally, it was just empty rhetoric. It meant something.

SADC on the other hand rejected military intervention in the Zimbabwean crisis. As indicated, long before the crisis of 2008, South Africa had already rejected the UK Prime Minister’s proposals for possible military intervention in Zimbabwe. However, while ECOWAS military intervention in the Gambia was a key factor in resolving the crisis, the question remains as to whether it can be taken as a precedent that has general application. The answer to this is not obvious. There are circumstances that made it seem easy to apply in the case of the Gambian crisis. The size the Gambia and its military capacity may have been factors that made it easier to deploy this strategy, which factors may tilt the other way in the case of another country. The Gambia is a small country with a small population and a small military and it’s almost entirely surrounded by Senegal. It would have struggled to contain an ECOWAS military intervention. In fact, it would have been overwhelmed by the bigger, multi-nation force. However, could the same strategy be deployed in, for example, Nigeria, a bigger country with a more sophisticated and powerful military?

Likewise, before criticising SADC’s inability to respond militarily in the Zimbabwean context, one must consider the logistics of such an intervention given the size, capacity and sophistication of the Zimbabwean military. It was clear that the Zimbabwean military was backing Mugabe. That much had been known since the 2002 presidential election, when the generals pledged their support for Mugabe. Did SADC have the military capacity to intervene militarily in Zimbabwe and would the Zimbabwean military have succumbed as the Gambian military did? The Gambian crisis has shown us the ECOWAS can intervene militarily, but before we take it as a general rule, it would be useful to observe how ECOWAS would respond to a similar political dispute in a bigger country. It could just be a replication of what happens on the world stage, where powerful countries find it easier to intervene in smaller countries, but are more restrained when crises involve more powerful countries.

Morgan and Adama

When the situation got tense during the 2008 election crisis, Morgan Tsvangirai skipped the border and went to Botswana where he was hosted by President Ian Khama. On another occasion, he took refuge at the Dutch Embassy in Harare, fearing for his life and safety. In The Gambia, Adama Barrow also skipped the border and went to neighbouring Senegal, for security reasons. While he was there, Barrow was sworn in as President of the Gambia.  This was after Jammeh had refused to relinquish power after the expiry of his term.

Some people have suggested that this is precisely what Tsvangirai should have done when he left for Botswana in 2008. This sounds attractive but it ignores important differences in the two men’s experiences. By the time Barrow left for Senegal, the electoral commission had already formally declared him as the winner of the election. In Zimbabwe, the electoral commission did not declare the result of the election until after 6 weeks. There was no official result upon which Tsvangirai could have been sworn in as President. When his lieutenant at the time, Secretary General Tendai Biti, publicly declared that Tsvangirai had won the election, he was promptly arrested and detained by the regime. Also, Tsvangirai would have needed the space in Botswana, namely the Zimbabwean embassy, to be sworn in as President. There is no evidence that this was available at the time. In addition, Barrow’s swearing in had the support and endorsement of ECOWAS, and Tsvangirai would have needed the same from SADC. Given the composition of SADC and sympathisers of Mugabe among the leaders, it is unlikely that support for such a ceremony would have been forthcoming.

Furthermore, in the Gambia, Jammeh had conceded defeat before his controversial reversal. Although he had changed his mind, his initial concession had placed him in a position from which recovery was impossible. His antics only drew ridicule and contempt from his peers. By contrast, in Zimbabwe, Mugabe had not conceded defeat. Instead, he had simply remained quiet and firmly in position while his acolytes fiddled with the results to create a scenario that would give him a second bite of the cherry. Perhaps if Mugabe had conceded defeat early on, SADC would have been under more pressure to act. The system had made sure he didn’t concede.

Jammeh’s concession of defeat cost him legitimacy among peers, without which he could not mount any decent defence. Power structures around him also began to abandon him. The Supreme Court, which he wanted to help prolong his rule refused to hear his case. Mugabe’s legitimacy was questionable after the 27 June sham election in 2008. The swearing-in ceremony was quickly arranged to affirm the sham victory but while it gave him formal legitimacy, it did not give him the substantive legitimacy that he needed to carry on as normal. If Mugabe had been well-received and accepted by his peers at the AU Summit in Egypt shortly after he was sworn in, he might have held on as if everything was in order. Failure to gain acceptance there thwarted his plans. However, the mediation that followed proceeded on the basis that he was President and that ensured he walked away with the lion’s share of state power. The Zimbabwean mediation rewarded cheating, while the Gambia intervention which was firmer did not tolerate bad behaviour. Indeed, Jammeh might have performed his somersault and created a crisis hoping to achieve a settlement that would leave him with a portion of power. That ECOWAS stood firm and refused to accommodate him demonstrated strong and positive leadership. Giving in to Jammeh would have created a bad incentive for dictators.

Folly of threats

Why did Jammeh change his mind so abruptly after he had shown magnanimity in defeat? One view is that he freaked out when euphoric members of the winning candidate began to talk of prosecution. If so, this was reckless talk. One of the major reasons why Africa has too many leaders who refuse to give up power is their fear of life after office. Without the immunity of presidential office and the benefits that come with it, they fear they will be vulnerable particularly because they commit excesses during their years in office. Jammeh had been in power for 22 years, during which he was alleged to have committed numerous human rights abuses. He would have been fearful of losing office and the protection it offers. His departure therefore needed to be handled carefully, to avoid what eventually happened. There was no need to start talking about prosecution before the opposition was firmly in power.  It was grossly premature and reckless to do so. The MDC had similar problems in its early years, which was down to inexperience. However, the party learnt over time to avoid making inflammatory statements. Such threats serve no purpose as there is always more than enough time to take action after a new government takes effect.

Winning elections and transfer of power

The Gambia election was yet another reminder of the difference between winning an election and taking state power. Adama Barrow won the election but taking state power was a more complicated and protracted affair. While the election was a domestic affair, taking state power became a regional affair. The winner had to rely on the diplomacy and military might of the regional countries under the auspices of ECOWAS. Back in Zimbabwe, this is the same problem that Tsvangirai and the MDC faced in 2008. The MDC beat ZANU PF in the elections. Tsvangirai also defeated Mugabe, although after a 6 week delay, the electoral commission declared that it was not enough to give him the presidency. The likelihood is that the results were cooked up to deny him the presidency. The bottom line is that Tsvangirai and the MDC discovered that while they might have won the elections, the question of transfer of power was an entirely different thing altogether. Transfer of power was thwarted.

Unlike Barrow in Gambia, to whom West African leaders pledged protection, Tsvangirai and the MDC did not have the firm backing of regional powers. In 2015, after his expulsion from ZANU PF, former senior party official and minister, Didymus Mutasa claimed that Tsvangirai and the MDC could have taken power had they marched to State House after their March victory. Mutasa may be right, given that he was an insider, and it might be easier to think possible with the benefit of hindsight, but one must also consider the tense situation and fears that existed at the time. A lesson to be drawn from both crises is that an election strategy must necessarily include a strategy for transfer of power. This strategy might involve local actors, or it might require external support. The Gambian situation demonstrated the critical significance of external actors in this strategic area. Perhaps if pressure had been brought to bear upon ZANU PF early on in 2008, it would not have taken 6 weeks to release the results and this might have prevented their manipulation.

Grand coalition

For the Zimbabwean opposition, which is riddled with divisions and unnecessary competition in the face of a common opponent, perhaps the most important lesson they can draw from the Gambia is that their chances of success against an entrenched authoritarian regime are enhanced by uniting under a grand coalition. For years, the Gambian opposition had tried to defeat Jammeh but the long-time dictator had out-manoeuvred them. Like Mugabe, Jammeh’s lengthy reign was down to outright thuggery, political gamesmanship and underhand strategies aided in part by opposition weaknesses which manifested in their inability to unite for a common cause. In fact, in many countries, dictatorships tend to produce such hydra-headed opposition. When it comes to elections, their share of votes is split between them and they lose to the ruling party. They compete against each other, instead of competing against the common enemy. The Gambian opposition finally discovered the missing formula. This is why they triumphed, when everyone else around the world had long given up and thought Jammeh would prevail again, as he had done many times before.

In that labyrinth of despair and hope, confusion and determination, if they look carefully, the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe might also find some inspiration, that it is possible even against heavy odds, to defeat an entrenched dictatorship. Confidence in and around the opposition has never been this low with just a year to go before the 2018 elections. The divisions and perennial squabbling in the opposition, which now approximates to the magnitude of a national sport, have left many people without hope. But all this can change if, like the Gambian opposition, the Zimbabwean opposition find common ground and above all, common sense.

In the end, the Gambia crisis cannot be equated to the Zimbabwean crisis in the same way the Zimbabwean crisis cannot be equated to the Kenyan crisis before it. While there are some points of similarity, each had its unique elements that made it different. The usefulness of studying them is the lessons they offer for the future, not a lamentation on what might have been. In the case of Zimbabwe, both the people and their leaders can draw lessons. Likewise, SADC could take some notes from ECOWAS, which has distinguished itself to the point that some have, in jest, suggested that it might as well take over from the talk-shop that is the African Union.