After 22 years under President Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia has a new president. Adama Barrow, the candidate of the 2016 Coalition who defeated the incumbent in a national election on Dec. 1, was sworn into office on Jan. 19, according to a New York Times report. Jammeh, the notorious dictator of the nation since 1994, initially refused to concede power to Barrow, but finally stepped down, making this one of the most remarkable elections in the nation’s history. Such a peaceful transition of power is crucial for a nation with a history of oppression such as The Gambia, and it is a significant step in providing hope for Gambians and other tyrannized nations in the area.
Jammeh’s presidency began when he seized power from former President Dawda Jawara in a 1994 coup, though it quickly began to take on the characteristics of dictatorship. Jammeh is notorious for his human rights abuses, particularly his persecution of homosexuals. He also has a tradition of restricted free speech and freedom of the press, and of oppressing the media and his opposition, according to a BBC report. Jammeh was reelected in 2001, 2006 and 2011 in elections that were criticized for their unfair oppression. Even in the 2016 election, his government blocked access to the Internet and international calls, and thousands of Gambians fled the country when he refused to acknowledge Barrow’s victory.
After 22 years of this dictatorship, The Gambia could not have been more ready for a change, and the public display of support for Barrow was remarkable. Both the United States government and the European Union called for Jammeh to give up power, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent presidential missions to The Gambia to encourage Jammeh to step down, according to Al Jazeera. ECOWAS even mobilized troops to threaten to force him out of office, but Barrow requested that they not respond violently, and Jammeh eventually stepped down.
Of course, Jammeh left his position enjoying tremendous retirement benefits fit for his office, which also aided the transition. Many citizens found him undeserving of these benefits, but they proved to be a tactful move in maintaining diplomacy after power had shifted hands.
The events in The Gambia should serve as a model for all nations struggling with power balance in their governments. Public support and attempts at peace have allowed for power to transfer peacefully in a nation where no one thought it possible. Gambian citizens have renewed hope about having an active role in a democratic government, and discussions about term limits and educating citizens about their constitutional rights are already beginning among the people, who are optimistic that the new president will take steps to prevent future dictatorships. In fact, according to BBC, Barrow has already said that he supports a two-term limit on anyone holding presidential office, which would prevent him from maintaining the same level of power that Jammeh held while in office.
The Gambia is not the only member of a slowly emerging trend of countries who are voting to depose longstanding leaders and being answered by a peaceful transition. In 2015, for example, Nigeria saw its first instance in which a president conceded defeat, when Mahummadu Buhari defeated Goodluck Jonathan. If the transition in The Gambia is just as smooth, and the country has the chance to operate as a true democracy, the push for other African dictatorships to follow suit will be significantly greater. Nations across the world will see an opportunity in which both freedom and peace can prevail, and perhaps they will take up the torch to exercise or even claim their rights as voters.
Since western involvement in former colonies like The Gambia, it has been all too easy for tyrannical governments to spring up in the power vacuums that negligent western governments have left behind. However, if The Gambia does not fall to another dictatorship, and free democracy prevails, the world might see a positive conclusion to these unresolved issues. After centuries in which it has been all too often for power-hungry rulers to defend their power or be replaced violently, this small African nation has left the world with an optimistic new hope for peace and democracy.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.