The Gambia’s autocratic president, Yahya Jammeh, who once claimed a “billion-year” mandate to rule, has agreed to concede defeat after a shock election loss to a real-estate developer.
The winner, Adama Barrow, won with 45.5% of the vote to Jammeh’s 36.7%, while the third candidate, Mama Kandeh got 17.8%.
Jammeh has ruled the tiny west African nation for more than two decades and is one of the rare African dictators to accept defeat in a democratic election. If he goes ahead with a peaceful handover of power, Barrow will become its third head of state since independence in 1962.
The head of the Gambia’s electoral commission, Alieu Momarr Njai, said Jammeh would concede on Friday. A video of his speech has already been recorded and is being edited, sources told the Guardian.
It was “very unique” that Jammeh would accept defeat after controlling the Gambia for so long, Njai said.
“The president is magnanimous enough to accept that he had lost the election, and he will call the new president to congratulate him as well as to pray for peace and tranquility.”
As soon as the president of the electoral commission said that Jammeh had lost, the internet, which had been shut down for 36 hours for “security” reasons, was restored and Gambians began to come to terms with their new reality.
The streets of the capital, deserted until that point, began to fill with cars screeching their horns in celebration. Children sang, men stripped off their shirts and punched the air.
Casting his vote the day before, Jammeh had said he was confident of winning “a bigger landslide” than the Gambia had ever seen, and refused to say whether he would concede if he lost.
This year’s election was the first since 1994, when Jammeh seized control of the country in a coup, that he faced a serious challenge to his rule. Over that period he consolidated power in a series of presidential elections, and skilfully exploited tribal and other divisions among multiple opposition parties.
Opposition politicians, journalists and activists have been arbitrarily arrested, thrown into jail, tortured and killed in the Gambia over Jammeh’s tenure.
Njie had been about to announce the latest batch of results when he got a call on his mobile.
He then told waiting observers and press that the president knew the result and was about to concede.
The minister of the interior, sitting in a magnolia office cubicle and trembling behind his aviator sunglasses, called on “all to remain calm.”
“Keep the peace and tranquility,” Modou Bah said. “People should go for their lawful businesses. We should not allow politics to divide us.”
Meanwhile, those hosting the live broadcast of election results on state television could not hide their astonishment.
“Have all the people loyal to the president migrated?” asked Malick Jones, presenting an all-night broadcast of Gambia Decides, when he realised that Jammeh had lost the capital.
More than 10,000 Gambians have arrived in Italy so far this year, most leaving on the dangerous “back way” across the Sahara. The numbers have almost doubled since last year, and this is to say nothing of those who die en route.
Outside Barrow’s house, crowds gathered, some celebrating and some in shock. Anger at Jammeh for his decades of repression bubbled up in others.
“We’ll put him in jail. We want him to go to the ICC,” said Adama Faye, an 18-year-old student. “He killed my father – I promise you, he did. Since I was born, I haven’t felt this kind of happiness.”
Jubilant crowds sang, whistled, cheered and stormed Barrow’s compound in celebration trying to get in and shake his hand. A man with a basket-hat and a posse of bouncers tried to keep them out.
Inside, the first lady-elect Fatou Bah, the first of Barrow’s two wives, arrived in a blue dress and enormous gold earrings and was blessed by a close family friend, a Catholic priest.
“I’m glad,” she said simply before disappearing into a back room.
Bruno Toupan, the priest, said that the fact that Barrow, a devout Muslim, would call a Catholic to come and bless the family, told you something about the man.
“We have great hope in the Gambia,” he said. “It’s a great relief, as Jammeh was planning to bring in Sharia law. I would have been a second class citizen.
Cheering crowds also gathered outside the home of Ousainou Darbo, the opposition leader who was sentenced to three years in prison in April, giving rise to Barrow’s candidacy. His court hearing will be on Monday and the crowds were calling for his release.
Amnesty International added its voice to these calls.
“An immediate first step for this new government is to release political prisoners and those who have disappeared,” Amnesty International’s Sabrina Mahtani said. We’ve seen how important the rights of freedom of information and freedom of assembly are over the last few weeks – it’s important that the new govt reforms repressive laws.”
The unusual electoral process The Gambia has involves rolling marbles into drums in order to choose candidates. The marbles were counted at each polling station and the results called in.
“We at the IEC are always saying that out electoral process is second to none in the world. It’s transparent, it’s accurate, it’s free and fair. Nobody can know who you’re voting for,” said Njie.