Unsplash by Avel Chuklanov

Even though a large amount of the offline population in the world can be found in Africa, the continent showcases striking examples of how social media has been used to favour democratic systems. The Perspective explores the Gambian election of 2016 and asks members of the Gambian society what they think of their leader today.

In the past twenty years, social media has grown to be incorporated in the lives of billions of people. It has gained increased ground when it comes to letting its users observe political developments in the world. The fast development has resulted in opportunities to get a hold of information from the other side of the world in a matter of seconds. Today, over half of the world population are active internet users. 

A large amount of the offline population in the world is found in Africa. There are several examples of how social media has been used as a tool to fight dictatorships. Two examples are Tunisia and The Gambia. During the Arabic spring Tunisia experienced a “Twitter revolution”. In The Gambia social media was used to overthrow the dictator Yahya Jammeh.

National elections are held every fifth year in The Gambia and all citizens are allowed to vote. Although the process has been similar to the process of a democratic system the results have generally been favourable for the current chair. Since The Gambia gained independence from The United Kingdom in 1965 the country has been ruled by two dictators: Dawda Jawara and Yahya Jammeh. Jawara ruled the country from 1965 until 1994 when he was overthrown by Jammeh. From then on Jammeh ruled The Gambia with an iron fist. 

During Jammeh’s time as president he established several regulations to make it difficult to overthrow him. For example, he established a maximum age limit for presidential candidates of the age of 65 in the year of 2011. At that time the leader of the opposition party United Democratic Party (UDP), Ousainou Darboe, had already passed the age limit making it impossible for him to get elected. In addition, Jammeh raised the cost of candidating significantly which further complicated the situation for other candidates.

Yahya Jammeh, former President and dictator of the Republic of The Gambia/ On Flickr by United Nations Photo

The Gambia is one of Africa’s geographically smallest countries and has a population of 2 million people. During Jammeh’s rule tens of thousands Gambians reportedly left The Gambia to live abroad. Around 90.000 gambians are estimated to live abroad today.

The road towards a democratic society has been long for the Gambian people. In 2016 new hope struck when Gambians living in The Gambia and parts of the Gambian diaspora joint forces and supported Adama Barrow, a democratic candidate from the UDP. Before entering the political arena Barrow was primarily a business man that had worked in real estate in London. 

The mobilisation of the people supporting Barrow was mainly done through social media, especially through Facebook- and WhatsApp groups but also through the website GoFundMe.com. Through these platforms the Gambians living in The Gambia and diaspora groups could connect and express opinions in order to collectively overthrow the autocratic regime. Barrows’ campaigners used the social media groups to spread information about road blocks, gatherings and other relevant messages to the people. GoFundMe.com was used to raise money, mainly from the Gambian diaspora, to contribute financially to the campaign. In total the Diaspora Election Command Center raised 100.000 US dollars.

The mobilisation of the Gambian people in favour of the UDP was so widespread that Jammeh strategically shut down the internet and telecommunications in The Gambia. This move was made to try to prevent that the opposition party’s influence spread.

The election results from the first of december 2016 were groundbreaking. Barrow had received a majority of the votes and won with 43,3% over sitting president Jammeh’s 39,6%. The message was clear. The Gambian people wanted a democratic leader. At first, Jammeh recognised his defeat and stated that he would hand over the presidency to Barrow. However, Jammeh changed his mind and was, during a period, unwilling to leave. After great pressure from the international society, especially from Senegal and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) he was forced to do so. Barrow was then able to take place as president. 

Barrow’s victory seemed to be the start of a democratic society in the Gambia. Since Barrow’s term began thousands of Gambians from the diaspora around the world have returned to The Gambia with hopes of building their lives there. 

In 2016, Reporters Without Borders ranked The Gambia as number 145 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index. Jammeh had oppressed the press by all means. Murders, imprisonments and abductions were not uncommon. In 2017, when Barrow had become president, The Gambia climbed up two steps and was ranked in place 143. In 2019, three years after the election, The Gambia has now climbed up to place 92. 

Change seems to pervade The Gambia. But is the outcome what the Gambian people wanted? Barrow candidated for the presidency on the grounds that he would only be a transitional president and hold chair for three years. Three years have now passed since the Gambian people went to the polling stations in december 2016, but Barrow shows no signs of handing over the presidency. Instead he aims to fulfil his term and to candidate again in 2021. 

Adama Barrow, current President of the Republic of The Gambia / On Wikimedia commons by Sikander transferred from Flickr via #flickr2commons

The Perspective spoke to Sheriffo Sonko, executive member of Three years Jotna the Gambia. The Civil society group Three years Jotna works as a pressure group to ensure that Barrow keeps his promise of being a transitional president and resigning after three years as promised. They want to hold new elections in which Barrow doesn’t participate and instead hands over power to the winner of the election. Sheriffo Sonko says:

— “Of recent, we have seen a reluctance in our President to honour this pledge, and like many failed African leaders, he also wants to perpetuate his presidency, at the detriment of the nation. For this reason, as patriotic citizens, our civil society grouping is formed with the aim of pressuring the President to remain faithful to his promise.”

Sheriffo Sonko supported and voted for Barrow in the 2016 elections as the flag bearer of the Coalition of the oppositional parties. He tells The Perspective that:

 — “I attended their political rallies, voted for them and also contributed to their campaign financially. I further assisted them in distributing their campaign posters and T-Shirts, etcetera.”

Even though Sonko supported Barrow back in 2016, he is not pleased with how the president has acted. He states that President Barrow disappointed the voters when it comes to corruption and governance among other things. He says that Barrow:

— “Has disappointed a lot of Gambians by his pandering to the remnants of the previous dictatorial regime of Yahya Jammeh.”

On the question if Barrow has lived up to his promises Sonko answers:

— “The simple answer is no! He is reneging on all of them. Thus, forcing citizens like ourselves to strive to hold accountable to his promises, especially with his promise to stay in power for only 3 years.”

Sonko continues to express his views of how The Gambia has changed since Barrow gained power:

 — “The political space has opened up a lot, in that people have been free to express their opinions. Though the government has been trying to restrict these freedoms our people are fighting to hang on to these rights, as we do not want to return to dictatorship. Besides the improvements of our freedoms, not much has been improved with regards to the people or youths access to opportunities of jobs, better education, healthcare, etcetera. The great majority of the Gambians are still poor and there is no end in sight on that front.”

Today, The Gambia faces a lot of challenges. Three years Jotna is presenting Barrow with a petition on the 16th of december in which he is required to resign on January 19th 2020 which hopefully takes the country on a more democratic path. Sonko explains that a lot of people rely on the Gambian government which currently is very weak. He wants The Gambia to take another direction and states that:

 — “We need social reforms in The Gambia, which will see the state taking a central role in the provision of public transport, housing, etcetera. At the moment our government is not heading towards that direction, unfortunately! In fact at present we are unclear as to where our government is taking us to.”

The Perspective also spoke to Ebrima Camara, Assistant secretary for the Gambian Texas Association (GTA). GTA is a non-profit, non-political and non-religious organization of Gambians and people of Gambian descent living in the State of Texas. GTA did not officially support a presidential candidate in the 2016 election but Camara tells us that even so:

— “It is safe to say that every individual in the community from the President to our estranged members was against the incumbent Yahya.”

Camara continues to speak about the engagement of the GTA community members:

— “Several community members hosted shows on online radios e.g. The Audacity Show to spread information that could not be spread through the only media channel in The Gambia, Gambia Radio and Transmission Services (GRTS). Many others expressed our views on our social media encouraging our family members at risk. Posting pictures with #NewGambia shirts and gear, hosting facebook lives and utilizing all the available technological resources to lead, motivate, educate, embolden and inspire family and friends back home who had the ballots in their hands. WhatsApp was a great platform to share information as it is what most Gambians use to communicate with and from the diaspora. Some also contributed to fundraisers created to support the coalition.”

As Sheriffo Sonko, Camara agrees that Barrow has not lived up to what he promised. On the question of if he thinks that Adama Barrow has lived up to his promises Camara says:

— “No. The most important promise from our collective objective to remove the despot was that he, Adama, or whoever it maybe that took the mantle would adhere to their coalition’s agreement that the President be a “transitional President”. This was a common understanding amongst themselves (politicians) and the people.”

Camara thinks that The Gambia has a lot of potential when it comes to development. He explains:

— “Considering our vast natural resources eg water bodies and human capacity The Gambia should be easy to develop. However, we need development in almost every sector. Health, agriculture, sports, arts, education, infrastructure, economy etcetera. Firstly and most importantly we need to organize. We need good executive leadership with a vision and tailored plan for the country. Knowledgeable, patriotic, experienced and incorruptible team to execute.”

Adama Barrow held the hopes of the Gambian people as he took his place in the presidential palace in Banjul. The dream of democracy was not fulfilled this time. But the hope is still alive both among Gambians in The Gambia and in diaspora groups such as the GTA. A change of regime did not change it all, even if the Gambian people experienced more liberties during Barrow’s term than under Jammeh. 

The social media mobilisation process that was able to include individuals from all over the world that did not know each other but merely share national identity is a revolutionary opportunity and is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Karolina Boyoli