The trouble with authoritarian rulers is that their authority becomes more important than themselves.
Adam Barrow defeated Yahya Jammeh last week in The Gambia and unleashed days of celebrations in the capital of Banjul. Twenty-two years begun with a violent coup seemed to end happily when Jammeh called Barrow and graciously conceded. Seemed like the old man just had had enough.
But it just wasn’t that easy.
Half of the people of The Gambia weren’t born when Jammeh first came to power – it’s all they’ve known. Repression of media and free speech, summary arrest, employment by nepotism … that was Gambia’s way of life.
There have been scores of political killings during Jammeh’s rule: “Therefore, it was a big disappointment to many people when President Yahya Jammeh decided to reject the election results because [these cases] will [not now] be resolved,” one of the country’s main newspapers said in a bold editorial.
A series of African leaders visited Gambia this week to persuade Jammeh to reverse his reversal. They’ve been unsuccessful so far, prompting the Americans to warn that the situation is now “very dangerous.”
The potential for reprisals is huge in The Gambia, but there’s precedent for handling this without the harshness many fear. Apartheid was ended in South Africa after nearly a half century: there were plenty of people to blame. But the country’s masterful Truth and Reconciliation Commission avoided reprisals altogether.
Being excused for past deeds isn’t the only problem. Jobs is probably the principle one. Adam Barrow is not likely to keep many people currently running the government in power, and the public is not likely to be disposed to hire them as shop clerks.
The jobs most likely to be changed quickly are those in the military, and it was the military that brought Jammeh to power, unlike apartheid which was brought to power through a [flawed] democratic process in South Africa.
It seems, in fact, that military leaders threatened to arrest Jammeh after his concession last week, basically saying if you don’t support us and keep us in power, we’ll turn you over lock, stock and barrel to the new authorities.
It was a bold gamble which nonetheless presages a military that does not intend to relinquish control. Jammeh built the military and was kept in power by it. He now succumbs to his own creation.
Under the military is the country’s industry, media and educational system. All of these have propped Jammeh up for two decades. How does a school teacher explain to her children that oops, no you don’t have to blindly honor the president for life? Does the news presenter bestow Barrow with the same sycophantic praise that opened newscasts about Jammeh? Consumer goods passed along a chain of nepotistic and connected acquaintances with little respect for true competition. What now?
Authoritarian rule builds stick houses within stick houses like a Russian nesting doll. Each one can collapse easily, but with time the mass becomes nearly impermeable.
Democracy is nice, if it worked.