|Retired U.S. Ambassador Stafford|
The landslide victory of Lower Saloum constituency by-elections a few weeks ago by the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), the second biggest opposition party represented, sent the most sobering message Yaya Jammeh has ever received in his 21-year dictatorial rule. It may have been sobering but far from humbling the former military police lieutenant who seized power unconstitutionally because he reacted to the defeat in the characteristic Jammeh style by dissolving the party structures in the constituency and shut down its regional party headquarters and dismissing staff in the process.
Buried in all the chaos is a significant piece of data that is important as it is instructive. According to the final tally of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) - which we all agree that it is anything but independent - showed that 95% of all those who cast their votes were women, driving the body to immediately suggest that investigation of the vote was in order. The opposition defeated the ruling party candidate by more than a 2:1 margin in a constituency that was never in the hands of the opposition which means that the majority of the women ( very close to the 2:1 margin of victory) voted for the opposition.
The women vote is one of the two solid pillars of support of the Gambian dictator. The other pillar is the youth vote, a reliable constituency of Jammeh's A(F)PRC political party since 1994 has been less than solid. The youth vote is less certain and can be described as wobbly at best for several reasons, some of which have been the topic of discussion on this blog. As if to remind the regime of the pending tsunami descending on Jammeh and his political party, the United States Charge d'Affairs Amb. Joseph Stafford prior to his departure from the Gambia where he was filling in for the substantive American Ambassador who's await Senate confirmation, reminded an assembly of 75 parliamentarian of the intricate relationship between accountability and growth and strengthening of democracy.
The veteran diplomat acknowledged a very well known fact common in Africa, and universally, that politicians "sweep under the rug" issue and problems close to the hearts of the youth, implying that all politicians are interested in is their vote on election day an after that they are left to fend for themselves, despite the fact that" there are real and pressing problems" affecting the youth. He gave employment as one such pressing employment problem that appears to worsen because of the economy's inability to create jobs for a growing youth population. Consequently, "nearly 60% of Gambia's poor are under the age of 20" according to Amb. Joseph Stafford.
"When constituents are not heard, or their legislators become unresponsive, the system breaks down" the American diplomat told the young parliamentarians, as if describing the current Gambian political environment where the central government machinery, including the judiciary and the parliamentary, has come to a complete standstill. Nothing appears to work except the presidential security infrastructure built around Jammeh for his own personal safety and that of his immediate family members. The welfare of the youth without whose support Jammeh would not be at State House has been neglected, despite promises, resulting in mass exodus of the young and increasingly restless Gambians.
It is not coincidental that according to the EU, about 10,500 Gambian immigrants sought asylum in Europe between January and June of this year alone - a phenomenal figure considering it is a six months period from a country that is less than 2 million inhabitants. These are the lucky ones who made it across the gang-infested Sahara and the treacherous Mediterranean crossing where last year 14% of the drownings of two boats were Gambian citizens, an equally disproportionate figure for a small country like The Gambia.
The inability or lack of commitment to the youth has resulted in loss in confidence in the Jammeh regime, and most are voting with their feet as both economic and political migrants. Whereas more of the youth are fleeing economic hardship due to bad and inappropriate policies, the human rights environment is also taking its toll with increasing repressive measures being adopted to keep the population under control as the economy deteriorates.
If the results of the Lower Saloum election results are indicative of the mood among Gambian women, combined with a disillusionment of a growing number of youth that are unemployed in a depressed economic environment, Jammeh is going to find it difficult to hold his coalition together.