The road to autocratic regimes is lined with the carcass of democracy. Does democracy really die? Can we kill it, if so how do you kill democracy? These questions have been swirling in my mind as I reflect on the current state of affairs in The Gambia. Now, you may question my morbid fascination with death, but I think these questions are apt when our democracy is being manipulated to suit a select few or when establishment politicians overlook warning signs and abdicate their political responsibilities. As citizens, we should not fall into the belief that our democracy is safe because it is being safeguarded by us. This view may get us into trouble- to assume that we can actually shape at will the type of government we want.
On December 1st, 2016, after mounting tension, protests, deaths, and disappearances of opposition members, The Gambian people birthed a new president. This new president was supposed to lead the country out of the abyss of political paralysis, economic stagnation and social tensions. At some level it felt like phoenix rising- a New Gambia rising out of the ashes and ruins of the former Jammeh regime. But, did Jammeh really kill our democracy? Well, it depends on how you look at it. At some level he did, and it looks like we may have to watch it die another death. But, knowing my Gambian people – it will not be on our watch
Jammeh killed our democracy through violence- it died at the hands of his killing squads. The coup d’état of 1994 solidified the death of our democracy, we just didn’t know at that time. As a political outsider, Jammeh railed against those he labeled as corrupt government elites and promised to build a more authentic democracy. This should have been a warning sign. Anytime a politician laments the corruption of the political elite and announces that power would be return to the people; that discourse should be taken seriously. One thing Jammeh had going for him was that he was able to skillfully tap into the anger of Gambians who felt ignored by the government at that time. Jammeh was the antidote that was supposed to cure the infection that was festering in our democracy.
Interestingly, when Jammeh started on his journey he did so democratically. He held free elections for a new constituent assembly and his allies won. This allowed him to literally write a new constitution later and solidify his control over the country. The wave of populism that drove him into office was slowly fading as public support faded and fear set in. This is not a surprise because at this time Jammeh had already taken steps toward authoritarianism. Gambians lived in fear, there was no issue politics – rather, the country was leaning on tribal politics. Elections were just a way to maintain a façade, a veneer of democracy. The Jammeh administration grew more aggressive on a daily basis; opposition leaders were arrested or killed; media figures were charged on bogus charges; newspapers were shut down and families were torn apart. So, how do you kill democracy again? Through the blatant disregard of human rights, through dictatorship and ruling the country like a military state. Yes, Jammeh played a part in killing our democracy, but I think he mimed it and Gambians limped with it into a New Gambia on December 1st 2016.
Lets fast forward to 2018. We have a democratically elected president who the people of the country looked down the barrel of guns and brought into office. The past year and a half have been interesting for the growth of democracy in The Gambia. While the death of democracy can be spectacular as in the case of autocratic regime, my fear is that there is a less dramatic way that our democracy may be hurt. It is less spectacular but never the less even more painful. This is when presidents who were democratically elected undermine the very process that brought them into power; when they slowly erode democracy in barely visible steps.
Maybe I am worried about nothing. But maybe I have cause to worry as I watch what’s happening in the country. In the slow road to democratic breakdown we do not see soldiers on the streets, no military vehicles, the constitution is in place and not suspended, all democratic institutions are in place and people feel free. The thing is, these democratic apparatuses can be in place while they slowly eviscerate the core of democracy. While Barrow has not come out swinging an axe at democracy, I hope when we see efforts to subvert democracy even through legal means with the so-called notion of improving democracy we should sound the alarm bells and not dismiss it. We should continue to watch this administration, to see if there are any concerning patterns that will set off our alarm bells.
Dr. Aminata Sillah is an Assistant Professor at Towson University, Maryland in the United States.