Had he accepted defeat in the election of December 2016, Gambia’s President Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, 51, would have been one of the few African presidents or heads of state who, having been in power for more than ten years or have had more than two terms of office, decided voluntarily to have a peaceful transition of power.
Notable presidents who stayed in power for a long time, yet organized or supported peaceful transition are Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor who left office in 1980 after 20 years, Cameroon’s Ahmadou Ahidjo who left office in 1982 after 22 years due to ill health, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere who quit voluntarily in 1985 after 21 years. Others are Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda who left in 1991 after 27 years when he lost election, and Benin’s Mathieu Kerekou who also left in 1991 when he was defeated as military leader after 19 years. They were all the first presidents of their countries after independence.
In several African countries, the governments suspend the constitutional limits to presidential terms of office, and enable the leaders to stay in power perpetually or for a long time. From such strong positions, the incumbent presidents generally win elections using any means.
Jammeh, as a 29-year-old army lieutenant, took over power in a coup d’etat in 1994 and was elected president in 1996. Subsequently, he has been re-elected four times. Under Jammeh, Gambia changed its constitution and removed term limits for the president.
ECOWAS dropped its plan for mandatory two terms for heads of state in West African countries when Gambia and Togo refused. Jammeh is reported to have said in 2011: "I will deliver to the Gambian people and if I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will, if Allah says so." It was clear that he did not see himself leaving office at any time in the foreseeable future. It was not an unusual scenario among his peers.
In 2015, the outcomes of presidential elections were predictably “favorable” to all long-term leaders in Africa. In April that year President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan won by 94 percent in a poll that was largely boycotted by opposition parties. He had ruled Sudan for 26 years. In Togo in the same month, President Faure Eyadema, 50, won a hotly contested election for a third term after being in power for 10 years, a successor to his father’s 38 years as president. Togo has no term limit for the president.
During 2016, all presidents who have been in office for at least ten years or more than two terms won the elections or were declared winners of contested elections. The list includes leaders of Chad, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Uganda.
The scheduled elections for the Democratic Republic of Congo in November 2016 could not hold due to serious civil disturbances as opposition parties and protesters demanded that President Joseph Kabila could not be a candidate. He was pressured to abide by the constitution adopted in 2006 and leave office as required after his second mandate expired in December 2016. Kabila, who came to office in 2001 following the assassination of President Laurent Kabila, his father, was first elected in 2006 as president. In a compromise on 23 December, an agreement, yet to be formally adopted, was proposed by the main opposition group and government under which the president would not alter the constitution and he must leave office before the end of 2017.
Despite the numerous sit-tight leaders, there have been smooth transitions, and changes of ruling political parties and presidents in many African countries. In 2015, election results were accepted by all parties involved in Cote d’Ivoire, Lesotho, Nigeria, Tanzania, Togo and Zambia. In 2016, Benin and Ghana witnessed impressively smooth transition of power.
Whilst Gambia’s Jammeh has acted true to character by rejecting the results of the election that he had accepted initially, the mood within Gambia and internationally suggests low tolerance of his stalling tactics. Whether Jammeh’s swagger and belligerence can outshine the resolve of internal critics and combined pressure of regional leaders and the international community will be clearer in the near future.
In 2014, Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore tried to force through a constitutional amendment to have a fifth term in office, but his 27-year regime was forced out by a combination of popular mass actions and military disenchantment with the government.
He had won elections four times previously under circumstances that were often similar to those of Jammeh.
The Gambia, as it is known, is the smallest country on mainland Africa. It has a population of about 1.8 million and economy largely dependent on tourism. Fishing and farming are also important. The country is almost entirely surrounded by Senegal, and its western part opens to the Atlantic Ocean. Its military strength is generally characterized as small with no major exposure to combat. The president is minister of defence and head of the military forces.
There is no documented information of any former African president who accepted unfavourable election results only to reject them later. The question is whether Jammeh can willfully discredit the electoral system which his government had established and which results he had used in three previous elections to confirm his re-election. If he gets away with it, he will become the first African leader to say “yes” and “no” to the same election result.
Bunmi Makinwa is the CEO of AUNIQUEI Communication for Leadership. Formerly, he was Africa Regional Director of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).