After fall of a dictator, young Gambians push into politics

The fall of Yahya Jammeh especially emboldened young voters, many of whom had known no other leader. Now, they hope democracy can help boost their voices and tackle the issues driving thousands of their peers toward Europe.

Anna Pujol-Mazzini
Abdoulie Ceesay presides over a meeting in Labakoreh, Gambia on Feb. 16, 2018.

Abdoulie Ceesay steps out of his shiny white pick-up on a sandy road, quickly followed by his team. On the agenda of this member of Parliament’s visit to Labakoreh, a small Gambian village in his constituency: political reconciliation, development, and disputes about who should succeed the village chief – known as alkalo – after the recent death of his predecessor.

The villagers eagerly gather, rushing forward to exchange a few courtesies in the Wolof or Mandinka languages. As is often the case, the crowd Mr. Ceesay is preparing to address is almost entirely older than him.

“When people elect their representatives, they respect them even though you are young,” he says behind dark sunglasses. Along with his towering height, they give off a confident air – but when women old enough to be his mother arrive to greet him during a prayer break, his humility is clear.

At 33, Ceesay’s age makes him a political rarity. Sixty percent of Gambia’s population is under age 35. Yet out of 58 members of the National Assembly elected in April 2017, only 15 fall under that age bracket.

But it is a new moment in Gambia, especially for young activists. The 2017 fall of Yahya Jammeh, a dictator who had ruled for 22 years, especially surprised and emboldened the young people who had grown up completely under his regime. Many of them put themselves at risk to campaign against him, at a time when writing the wrong slogan on a T-shirt or social media could land someone in prison.

A year after the arrival of new President Adama Barrow, however, discontent is growing over slow progress. Many young Gambians hope democracy can help boost their representation in government and address the issues that matter to them most: high unemployment, poor education, and the resulting lack of opportunities that is driving thousands to attempt the dangerous crossing to Europe. Young women, in particular, are hoping to join a political process that has traditionally shut them out.

#Gambiahasdecided

In the lead-up to presidential elections in December 2016, the political momentum was unprecedented. For two decades, Mr. Jammeh and his party had won all elections amid allegations of rigging. Now, he was facing off against a political newbie: Mr. Barrow, leading a coalition of opposition parties.

Young people – many of whom had only known one leader  – came out in droves to political rallies, and worked on mobilizing their own families, friends, and communities to go out and vote. Barrow won, but getting rid of Jammeh was another matter: He originally accepted defeat, then changed his mind. As Barrow supporters pushed for Jammeh to step down, their excitement was emblazoned on T-shirts and walls: #GambiaHasDecided. Social media was ablaze with political discussion and hopes of change.

When Jammeh eventually fled to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017, driven out by the threat of invasion by regional forces, some young people kept arguing for change on social media. A few dozen protested for the National Assembly to resign, denouncing it as little more than a rubber stamp for Jammeh.

Others, like Ceesay, ran for office. A father of three, he says his community pushed him to campaign. He worked for an international nongovernmental organization, and had never been involved in politics.

Initiatives to empower youth in politics have mushroomed since Jammeh’s departure. There’s the Not Too Young to Run campaign, which helps young candidates with campaign planning and communications. There’s funding and training available through international organisations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI). And there’s the parliamentary youth caucus, where Ceesay serves as a secretary.

Still, barriers remain, particularly lack of funding and recognition. In addition, cultural beliefs and memories of the recent past have left many communities reluctant to letting their young men and women run for office.

“Even if a young person wants to go into politics, some people remind you that you are young, you have a lot of future ahead of you, so you don’t have to risk your life,” says Lamin Darboe, director of the National Youth Council – an umbrella organization working with 115 youth groups across the country. “Because it has been a matter of life and death to be in the opposition in the Gambia at some point.”

And parties headed by older men have struggled to adapt. “The political parties have not gone out of their way to attract youth to join,” says Robina Namusisi, Gambia director of the IRI. She’s supported the parliamentary youth group, training them and providing them a space to meet while they were drafting their group’s constitution. “It’s disheartening to hear that most of the youths want to run as independent,” she says, as it deprives parties of future leaders, and aspiring leaders of much-needed publicity and support.

Slow-coming change

After Jammeh’s departure, hopes for the new Gambia were high. More than a year into Mr. Barrow’s government, however, discontent is growing at the pace of change. The economy has improved slightly, despite Jammeh leaving the country millions of dollars in debt after helping himself to its coffers. Yet youth unemployment stands around 40 percent, fueling migration out of the country. In 2017, more than 11,000 Gambians reached the shores of Italy hoping for a better future. Power and water cuts are a daily occurrence.

“There’s not been much change,” says Nyimasata Camara, a political science lecturer at the University of the Gambia. “In terms of employment, we have not seen anything happening at all. The creation of industries that can absorb the unemployed youth has not happened.”

Last November, as shortages worsened amid a hot spell, youth groups on Whatsapp organized hundreds of people willing to protest – an unthinkable feat under Jammeh. But Occupy Westfield, as they called the movement, was denied a police permit. Instead, its leaders, a group of 20-something friends, gathered to reiterate their demands for water and electricity before being dispersed by authorities.

Soon, they highlighted a new concern: their right to assemble freely. Some laws that facilitated human rights abuses in the past, such as those restricting press freedom, are still in place while the constitution is reviewed. As young people organize, their progress is similarly slow. The youth caucus, for example, stands ready to operate, but is still awaiting parliament’s approval to start.

The slow pace is especially marked for young women. Back in Labakoreh, sitting discreetly in a corner of the health center where Ceesay is presiding over his meeting, is Maimuna Ceesay – one of two women in the room, and his cousin. During the presidential election campaign, she encouraged women and youth in her village to vote for the coalition. Now, as April elections approach, she running for councilor of Kunkujang, a ward of around 40,000 people along the coast.

“The main reason Gambian women are not participating in politics is because of the harassment,” says Ms. Ceesay in her soft English. “The ones who should support you, they are the ones harassing you.” In her short political career, she’s been called a prostitute and a flurry of disparaging names, she says. “I don’t care about all that. I think what men can do, I can do that too.”

But many women are reluctant to run for office. In the National Assembly, there are only six – a mere 10 percent of lawmakers. In the meantime, some find other ways to make a difference.

“You don’t have to be in office to get involved in politics” says Ya Mallen Jagne, vice chairperson of Occupy Westfield. At 20, she has founded a political movement, organized a protest, and spoken with ministers to discuss her group’s demands. She still has a year before she can be elected to the National Assembly, where the minimum age for lawmakers is 21.

“The stuff I do – it’s politics – but it’s not in the sense that most people understand it,” says Ms. Jagne. “You can still speak out wherever you are.” 

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