December 5, 2020

Niamina West Bye-Elections: Lessons and Observations

By D. A. Jawo

The outcome of the Niamina West bye-elections, held on Saturday, November 7, in which the National People’s Party (NPP) scored a landslide victory over the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC), has quite a few lessons for everyone who participated in it as well as all those concerned about politics in this country. While no doubt the NPP and its sympathisers are on top of the moon for winning the seat, but I hope they would be honest to themselves that it was obtained at a great financial and moral prize.

It was quite clear that President Adama Barrow sent to Niamina West a large entourage of his most trusted people, including Hamat Bah, leader of the moribund National Reconciliation Party (NRP) as well as virtually all his advisers and other civil servants, including some other cabinet ministers, and of course the Governor of the Central River Region (CRR) and the district chiefs, who are supposed to be politically neutral. They were not only using their incumbency advantage to the maximum, but also using state resources during most of the campaign. It is alleged for instance, that their large fleet of vehicles were being fueled with official fuel coupons instead of from NPP money. All the cabinet ministers who went there, including Hamat Bah, who spent all the time there, were not only using their official vehicles, but they were also accompanied by their government drivers and security/orderlies who were apparently paid per diems for the number of days they spent there. Even the fact that some civil servants, paid from public coffers, abandoned their work to campaign for the NPP was abuse of office.

The NPP and its allies must have no doubt spent several millions of Dalasis during the campaign. However, was it really worth all that cost just to get someone elected for slightly over a year before the next National Assembly elections? Of course, President Barrow and his sympathisers would say that just the symbolism of the victory was worth every butut spent on it. Indeed, they must certainly be congratulating themselves for not only achieving this most symbolic victory, but by implication, also for humiliating their greatest rival, the UDP, who not only declared their support for the GDC, but went all out to campaign for the GDC candidate.

President Barrow had made his intentions for winning the seat known well before the bye-elections and he had been doing everything to achieve that. He was once quoted telling some people from Niamina West that he considered the seat as his “Afo’” (first born in Pulaar) and that winning it would be worth anything to him. Indeed, with the victory, it has become the NPP’s first born, even though in reality, all the NRP NAMs and those renegade members from the UDP and the GDC are technically NPP members as well, in both comportment and action, as was clearly manifested during the debate on the Draft Constitution. There are even allegations that the co-incidence of the National Nutrition Agency (NaNA) paying their last installment of the NAFA money, which was meant to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on households barely three days before the elections, was deliberately done to help the NPP as President Barrow was recently heard telling the people that he was the one giving them that money.

However, apart from the obvious use of state resources and incumbency advantage, the NPP also received a lot of financial and moral support from several quarters, including some very powerful business interests. The campaign team was there with several brand new pick-up vehicles, no doubt given to them by those powerful business interests, the usual shadowy ‘anonymous’ donors that the Barrow government has been depending on for a number of things.

Another unclear aspect of the NPP campaign was that while many of those on their campaign trail claim to have been President Barrow’s coalition partners, such as the leadership of the NRP, GPDP, PPP and the new entrant, GAP, but everything seems to have been centred on the NPP, with hardly any mention of the coalition partners. They all were urging the people to vote for NPP but never for the coalition, because the reality is that all those parties now merely exist in name only but in reality, they all seem to have all virtually melted into the NPP.

“Our own party leader, Hamat Bah, has mortgaged the NRP to President Barrow for his own position and comfort, leaving us in the cold,” complained a member of the NRP.

As regards the opposition, particularly the GDC and their allies in Niamina West, the UDP, it is certainly time to review what has gone wrong with their campaign strategy. The results both in Niamina West and the bye-elections in Ker Jarga Ward in Jokadu, have shown that both the GDC and the UDP were outperformed by the NPP. Therefore, if this trend continues, should we not brace ourselves for an easy NPP victory in 2021?

Some people however blame the GDC’s loss in Niamina West to their open alliance with the UDP, which does not seem to have been well embraced by the people of Niamina West, for whatever reason. In fact, since its formation in 1996, the UDP has never put up a candidate in the constituency.

“GDC should not have allowed the UDP to join their campaign as that most have likely put off some of their supporters,” one GDC sympathizer said.

However, while these results are no doubt a good moral booster for President Barrow and his socalled coalition partners, but it would be quite premature for them to conclude that it is an indication of his popularity and the invincibility of the NPP. They were dealing with a very small area and a less sophisticated voter population who could have been easily manipulated with money and mere promises. However, when it comes to country-wide elections, it is very likely to be a completely different scenario altogether. With President Barrow’s flip-flopping characteristics, it would be foolhardy for them to under-estimate the level of dissatisfaction with his regime, and that could negatively affect the chances of his NPP in 2021 or any other subsequent election.

Author: Demba Ali Jawo.

He was The Gambia’s former Ministet of Information.

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