A member of the Gambian opposition on Thursday defeated his country’s vehemently anti-gay president who seized power more than two decades ago.
Gambia’s Independent Electoral Commission said Adama Barrow, an independent candidate who represented the United Democratic Party, a coalition of eight opposition parties, defeated Yahya Jammeh by a 45-36 percent margin. The Associated Press reportedthat Jammeh acknowledged the surprise election results in a telephone call he made to Barrow with cameras from state television rolling.
“Allah is telling me my time is up and I hand over graciously with gratitude toward the Gambian people and gratitude toward you,” said Jammeh, according to the Associated Press.
State Dept. spokesperson: Election ‘a big deal’
Jammeh came to power in the small West African country during a 1994 coup.
A report that Human Rights Watch released in September 2015 notes anti-LGBT persecution is among the human rights abuses for which Jammeh’s government was responsible.
The report notes Gambian police and officials with the country’s National Intelligence Agency “promptly rounded up” dozens of people “on suspicion of their sexual orientation” after Jammeh signed a law in 2014 that sought to impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality.” A man who said he was among 18 people arrested at a 2012 birthday party for “promoting homosexuality” told the Washington Blade that he fled Gambia a few weeks after Jammeh signed the statute.
Jammeh in 2015 said he would slit the throats of gay men in his country.
Jammeh, who owns a $3.5 million mansion in Potomac, Md., in 2014 described gay men as “vermin” during a speech he gave that commemorated his country’s independence from U.K. He told the U.N. General Assembly in 2013 that homosexuality is among the three “biggest threats to human existence.”
The Obama administration in late 2014 announced Gambia was no longer eligible to take part in a duty-free trade program that allows countries in sub-Saharan Africa to access U.S. markets. The European Union earlier in the year delayed a 150 million Euro aid package to Gambia after Jammeh’s government failed to repeal his country’s death penalty and implement other democratic reforms.
Barrow’s positions on LGBT-specific issues were not immediately known.
Ned Price, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, noted in a statement that Thursday’s election is Gambia’s “first democratic transfer of power.”
“The United States congratulates the people of the Gambia on a peaceful and democratic presidential election that has the potential to mark a new beginning for all Gambians,” he said.
State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Friday made a similar point during his daily press briefing.
“It’s a big deal,” he said in response to the Blade’s question about the election results.
Jeff Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa, a Washington-based group that worked with Barrow and the United Democratic Party, told the Blade on Friday during a telephone interview that the Gambian government closed its borders with Senegal and shut down the country’s internet and telephone networks before the election. Smith also noted there was “certainly intimidation” of voters ahead of Thursday’s vote.
“Despite all that the opposition still won and people came out,” he told the Blade.
Jammeh’s nephew in U.S. welcomes election results
Alagie Jammeh, the nephew of Yahya Jammeh, in 2014 posted a pro-LGBT message to his Facebook page. Alagie Jammeh was a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, at the time and the Gambian government stopped providing financial support to him.
Alagie Jammeh received asylum in the U.S. earlier this year.
“I never thought I would see a day like today,” he told the Blade on Friday during a telephone interview from Santa Barbara, Calif. “I am really proud of Gambia today.”
Alagie Jammeh, nephew of soon-to-be-former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, speaks at the Newseum in D.C. on Dec. 8, 2015. (Photo courtesy of Phil Humnicky/Human Rights First)
Fatou Camara is a journalist who was once Yahya Jammeh’s press secretary. She fled to the U.S. in 2013 after Gambian authorities accused her of seeking to undermine the government.
Camara told the Blade on Friday that the election results are “the best news for every Gambian.”
“Now our people are free after 22 years of dictatorship,” she said. “Many Gambians only know Jammeh, he oppressed us, intimidated us and abused us. We are a free people from today.”
The Gambian constitution says Barrow must take office within 60 days of his election. Smith told the Blade that Jammeh may officially step down before the aforementioned deadline.
“It was essentially a mafia state, so there’s a huge vacuum state that needs to be filled,” said Smith, referring to Gambia under Jammeh’s rule.
He added the election results will “reverberate across the region.”
“This is absolutely momentous for Gambia,” said Smith. “[It is] a stunning rejection of abuse, of dictatorship. Thousands of people bravely put their lives on the line to oust someone who had abused them with impunity for decades.”