War and peace: new presidents in West Africa

War and peace: new presidents in West Africa

During the first week of December, citizens in Ghana and The Gambia went to the polls to elect a new president.

In Ghana, opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo won a majority as Ghanaians vented their frustration at a stagnating economy, rejecting John Dramani Mahama’s aspirations of a second term. In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule came to an apparent end as former Argos security guard Adama Barrow claimed a shock victory.

On December 9th, President Mahama conceded defeat to three-time candidate Akufo-Addo after losing crucial votes in the influential coastal and Accra swing state regions. This marks the third time Akufo-Addo’s New Patriotic Party (NPP) has won power in Ghana.

Like all elections since the formation of the democratic 4th Republic in Ghana in 1993, the transition of power between the president and the president-elect will be smooth and accepted.

A week earlier, approximately 1200 miles up the west coast in Banjul, the capital of Gambia, one of the “biggest election upsets West Africa has ever seen” (according to the BBC) was taking place as it was announced that coalition candidate Barrow had defeated long serving President Jammeh.

After Gambians had voted by placing marbles in coloured drums with the candidates’ pictures affixed, it was announced a day after that Barrow had received 43% of the vote to Jammeh’s 40%. Barrow was the new President-Elect. Barrow, a softly spoken former real estate agent and Arsenal fan, pledged to return Gambia to the Commonwealth and ran on a platform of a loosening of censorship and political arrests, which had been frequent under Jammeh.

However on December 9th, the same day that Mahama conceded in Ghana, Jammeh abruptly rejected the result of the election, citing that he had uncovered “serious and unacceptable abnormalities” with the result and was seeking, at the least, a revote. Jammeh’s 22-year rule, it now seems, may be set to continue.

Ghana, a country filled with diverse landscape and a ‘Gold Coast’ in the south, is one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations. The 2016 Global Peace Index, which measures the safety of a country based on indicators such as terrorism impact, criminality and political stability, places Ghana in the top 50 in the world, above both the United Kingdom and the United States. It has been a “beacon of democracy” and peacefulness in a region plagued by violence and dictatorship. It holds one of the largest reserves of oil throughout the whole of Africa and, best of all, its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was a UCL alumnus.

However, the economy has stagnated in recent years and grew at its slowest rate in more than two decades in 2016. Gold, oil and cocoa, Ghana’s three biggest exports, saw their prices drop under Mahama’s leadership. Even during an electricity shortage Mahama made a decision to sell electricity to neighbor Burkina Faso and left large numbers of Ghanaians having to endure frequent controlled power blackouts.

It is in this context that saw over half of Ghanaian voters reject Mahama and place their trust in Akufo-Addo.

Named after the winding river that cuts through the centre of the country, Gambia relies heavily on tourism to maintain the economy of a country where only a small fraction of land is arable. The tiny coastal nation, the smallest on the African mainland, has around 1/3 of its population living under the poverty line, earning less than $1.25 a day.

An increasingly popular tourist stop due to its clear blue beaches and cheap cost of living, its political context leaves a lot to be desired. After seizing power as a 29-year-old Army General in a ‘bloodless coup’ in 1994, President Jammeh has since gone on to win four highly criticised elections and oversee a tightening of freedom of expression and debate.

High profile journalists have either been gunned down or imprisoned while many individuals who even slightly criticise the government disappear in mysterious circumstances, though Jammeh denies any responsibility for the violence. He also claims to have a cure for AIDS while simultaneously threating to chop off the heads of homosexuals.

Adama Barrow provided the perfect antidote to the 22 years of Jammeh rule. A former security guard at a London Argos, Barrow returned to Gambia to establish a real estate business and, similar to Jammeh, is a devout Muslim. Picked by a coalition of opposition parties to oppose Jammeh, Barrow is a likeable political outsider who has enthused the Gambian youth and offered a compelling but sensible alternative to the draconic Jammeh. Pledging to release political prisoners, loosen media censorship and return Gambia to the Commonwealth and the rule of the International Criminal Court, Barrow successfully clinched victory on December 1st.

However, unlike the smooth transition set to take place in Ghana, Jammeh has since refused to accept the election result and has called for a re-vote while at the same time sending the military to take over the electoral commission building.

Four leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including defeated Ghanaian president Mahama, met Jammeh in Banjul days after his rejection of the result to convince him to step down peacefully, after failing to do so, the ECOWAS bloc announced it “would take all necessary actions” to uphold Barrow’s victory. The respective leaders of the bloc will attend Barrow’s inauguration in February, potentially only after military action has been taken to dispose of Jammeh.

The consensus within Gambia is that this is finally the end of the two decade long Jammeh rule, and that the recent attempt to reject the election outcome is Jammeh playing on borrowed time. If Gambians don’t force Jammeh out themselves, the ECOWAS who pledge to amass troops to force him out certainly will.

Come January, the two West African nations will be holding inaugurations to welcome new presidents. Ghanaians will witness Akufo-Addo sworn in as the country’s newest president on January 7th, around a month before Gambia too is scheduled to hold an inauguration ceremony.

At the time of writing, the political situation in Gambia still remains unclear with President-Elect Barrow preparing for his inauguration while Jammeh prepares to desperately cling to power. But it is appearing increasingly likely that, come early 2017, Adama Barrow will be sworn in as President to see Gambia welcome its first change of leadership in 22 years.

Featured image: Wikimedia

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