On December 1, Gambians will vote in their country’s most consequential election since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. For the first time, a unified political coalition will challenge Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s longtime dictator, only months after the most vigorous protest movement in the country’s recent history.

The upcoming election could usher in a new period in Gambia’s political development, which so far has been marked by two distinct phases. The first period began in 1965 with Gambian independence and ended in 1994 with the overthrow of Dawda Jawara, the country’s first popularly elected president. Over those three decades, Gambia’s economy performed relatively well compared to its counterparts in West Africa, ranking third overall in GDP per capita in 1994; the country also became a popular tourist destination, earning the moniker the “Smiling Coast of Africa.” Jawara was widely applauded for advancing human rights and for his bold attempts to improve Gambia’s economy. Thanks in part to his government’s record, in 1989, the newly created African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) chose to establish its secretariat in Banjul, Gambia’s capital. 

In the early 1990s, Jawara began to face growing internal criticism and calls for change—in particular, for failing to curb corruption and provide basic services. Throughout the early 1990s, civil society groups, university students, and working Gambians took to the streets to express their discontent. Yet Gambia was hardly an outlier in a region that was experiencing a host of post-colonial troubles. 

Gambia’s situation took a dramatic turn for the worse in July 1994, when Jammeh, then a 29-year-old junior military officer, seized power in a bloodless coup. (He had recently returned from a military training course in the United States.) Under Jammeh’s rule, which marks the second period in Gambia’s independent political history, the country has earned a reputation as a human rights pariah due to the rampant killings, disappearances, and torture of journalists, activists, and members of the political opposition. Gambia is now the only country in West Africa with a per-capita GDP that is lower today than it was in 1994, and it has the region’s second-lowest per-capita GDP in the region overall. It’s no wonder that Gambia’s most notable export is its own citizens. This year, they made up the fourth-largest group of migrant and refugee arrivals to Italy, despite the fact that Gambia has one of the smallest populations in Africa. Perhaps in an attempt to shield himself and his regime from potential prosecution for their myriad crimes, Jammeh recently withdrew Gambia from the International Criminal Court. (The chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is a Gambian citizen and was once a legal adviser to Jammeh.) As for the ACHPR, African observers have called for its relocation to a country with a better human rights record.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh in Abuja, Nigeria, December 2015.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh in Abuja, Nigeria, December 2015.
Afolabi Sotunde / REUTERS

Since 1994, Jammeh has systematically deprived ordinary citizens of their rights to free speech and has verbally lashed out against most segments of society, threatening, for instance, to “slit the throats” of gay men living in the country and vowing to “bury” the political opposition “nine feet deep.” But Gambians are not the only targets of Jammeh’s unhinged ire: in May, for instance, he told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Amnesty International to “go to hell” after Ban and Amnesty voiced their concerns about the death of Solo Sandeng, an opposition youth leader who was arrested, beaten, and reportedly tortured to death while in state custody. 

In the run-up to the December 1 election, Jammeh and his inner circle have ratcheted up their incendiary rhetoric, which has at times amounted to hate speech and incitement to violence. In June, Jammeh labeled the country’s nearly one million ethnic Mandinka “vermin” and went on to exclaim: “I will kill you like ants, and nothing will come out of it.” Soon afterward, Gambia’s top diplomat at the United Nations was caught on tape endorsing the shooting of peaceful protesters. And in the second week of November, the government arrested and detained incommunicado three Gambian journalists (one has since been released). 

In recent months, however, there have been signs that Gambia’s climate of fear is beginning to dissipate. In April, Gambians took to the streets in the most sustained act of public defiance against Jammeh since he seized power over two decades ago. The authorities suppressed the burgeoning civic movement with characteristic brutality, arresting more than 90 opposition activists and handing down three-year jail sentences to 30 people, including the president of Gambia’s main opposition party. The crackdown led to the deaths, apparently by torture, of at least two opposition party supporters held in state custody.

Jammeh and his political machine will surely attempt to rig the election in their favor.

Instead of withdrawing into their corners, in October, Gambia’s opposition united behind a single presidential candidate, a businessman and former London security guard named Adama Barrow. The impressive union backing Barrow includes most of Gambia’s main opposition parties and has drawn the support of Isatou Touray, a prominent human rights activist who has been at the forefront of efforts to achieve social change in the country for several decades.

Of course, the opposition is fighting an uphill battle against an entrenched political machine. If recent history is any guide, Jammeh and his political machine will surely attempt to rig the election in their favor. In 2011, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Gambia is a member, refused to send election observers to the country, citing the state’s intimidation of opposition supporters and its undue control of the media. Last week, the Jammeh government blocked a group of observers from the European Union from entering Gambia, despite having invited them in the first place.

The upcoming election nevertheless represents a potentially profound turning point: for the first time, the Jammeh government’s repression seems to be energizing dissent, rather than quashing it. The unprecedented political coalition opposing Jammeh and the number of people who have publicly supported it are evidence that Gambians have had enough. 

Moving a polling station in heavy rain in Serekunda, near Banjul, Gambia, September 2006.
Moving a polling station in heavy rain in Serekunda, near Banjul, Gambia, September 2006.
Finbarr O'Reilly / REUTERS

During this crucial time, Western countries, in particular, should make clear to Jammeh’s government that it will suffer real consequences if it continues to deny its citizens basic human rights and fails to uphold minimum democratic standards. Over the past year, a number of nongovernmental organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have advocated for targeted sanctions against the Jammeh government should the country’s human rights situation deteriorate further. Similarly, the European Parliament has suggested that it would consider imposing travel sanctions on Jammeh and his inner circle if they continue to flout Gambians’ human rights. 

The EU should act on that threat if Jammeh steals the upcoming election, and Washington should expand and strengthen the visa bans that it has already imposed on Gambian officials in response to Banjul’s failure to repatriate Gambian citizens facing deportation from the United States. It is unacceptable that Jammeh, one of the world’s most brutal dictators, can frequent a multi-million-dollar mansion some 20 miles from the White House and meet with the U.S. president.

Over the past year, according to the Early Warning Project, which identifies countries at risk of state-led mass killings, Gambia has had the world’s fourth-biggest increase in risk for mass violence. Those who have demonstrated interest in Gambia’s future so far—including prominent human rights groups, ECOWAS, the EU, and the United States—should closely monitor Gambia’s security forces, which answer directly to Jammeh and have shown a proclivity for brazen violence. In April, for example, they opened fire on peaceful protesters.

The U.S. government should also task its intelligence services with assessing the potential for mass violence in the coming weeks. Gambia should be elevated—if it has not been already—to the president’s Atrocities Prevention Board, which could open the channels needed for U.S. agencies to coordinate a response, such as the imposition of sanctions or visa bans. 

Taken together, these actions will signal to Jammeh and his coterie that their crimes against Gambians will no longer be tolerated. Gambian citizens—especially those in civil society and the political opposition–have been putting their lives on the line to demand a better future. It is long past time for outside actors to offer the support and solidarity that could help put their country back on a democratic path. 

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