Political earthquake leaves The Gambia at a crossroads
The Gambia has new politicians and a public that sees the potential of a fresh start for their country, says Ian Murray MP.
Midway through last year on the West Coast of Africa, in a country smaller than Wales, completely surrounded by it’s much larger neighbour, and with a population less than half that of Scotland, a small political earthquake took place leaving The Gambia at a political crossroads.
For 22 years the ever-increasingly authoritarian President Yahya Jammeh ruled over the people of The Gambia enforcing political persecution, restricting press freedoms and stripping citizens of any meaningful national representation. So you can imagine my surprise when, in September of this year, I found myself meeting with newly elected National Assembly Members (otherwise known as NAMs) under a new President at the start of a fresh political era for The Gambia.
Back in October 2016, a coalition of opposition parties united behind one candidate for President – Adama Barrow. To the surprise of both local and international observers, former President Jammeh was defeated. Shortly afterwards, after having initially accepted defeat, Jammeh then refused to step down and declared the election result void.
Many similar situations across the globe would have led to conflict and unrest. Yet calm heads and sustained international and regional pressure, particularly by the regional ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) force, led to a mediated and peaceful conclusion. Jammeh was granted political asylum in Equatorial Guinea and Barrow was appointed President.
Fast forward six months and I found myself in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, delivering an induction programme for newly elected NAMs (90% of the NAMs in the Parliament are new) organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK (CPA UK) and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). Our cross-party delegation consisted of my parliamentary colleagues, James Duddridge MP and Chi Onwurah MP, and two Westminster Parliamentary Clerks.
For four days we had the opportunity to discuss the shared principles underpinning both of our democracies, whether the importance of rigorously scrutinising the government, passing effective legislation, or representing your constituents at the highest possible level. We held workshops, took expert advice, debated how parliaments should operate, and ‘speed-dated’ NGO representatives, all the while exploring how parliaments can fulfil their many responsibilities.
Amongst these newly elected Members there is an infectious atmosphere of optimism and energy and the sense of an institution shedding its rubber-stamping reputation. There is however a flip side to this, there is a huge burden of expectation on NAMs to bring about change, and quickly; but like all democracies, the journey isn’t necessarily smooth.
And so The Gambia finds itself at a crossroads. For the first time in two decades the National Assembly has the opportunity to radically alter The Gambia’s political culture, to bring about positive change, and to correct years of oppressive rule. I hope the people and the parliamentarians of The Gambia seize this opportunity to bring in a new order of openness and transparency, to represent the interests of the many, and to shape the lives of its citizens for the better.
The Gambia has new politicians and a public that sees the potential of a fresh start for their country. The opportunities are limitless but like any country at a crossroads, the direction in which is turns will shape the future for many decades to come. Let’s hope the work we have all been doing to help the country make the right turn will provide the foundations for a very bright future for The Gambia.
Ian Murray is the Labour Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South