Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh – who has said he wants to rule his country for one billion years “if Allah wills” – is facing a new challenge from a former political ally.
By Alieu Manneh
With just over three months to go before a presidential election and analysts tipping Jammeh to retain his position, the unexpected involvement of a little-known former lawmaker has jarred Jammeh’s smooth path to power.
Mamma Kandeh, who was recruited into politics by the president’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), announced his candidature with his new Gambia Democratic Congress formed in April this year and has since been making unexpected waves across the country.
In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency, the 51-year-old native of Sareh Birom village in eastern Gambia near the Senegalese border, claims hundreds of former ruling party supporters are joining his opposition movement:
“I knew when I started politics that the only way to beat Jammeh is to get from him his own supporters because opposition voters won’t vote for him and that is what I am doing.”
“The lack of democracy, poor development track record and disrespect for human rights in Gambia has to stop,” he added.
A former hotelier and a native of the Fulani people, Gambia’s second-biggest tribe, Kandeh, who backed Jammeh’s party for a decade but now predicts the president will win only 10 percent of the vote, has now been branded a traitor by senior APRC figures.
Charismatic with good spoken English, Kandeh is something of a liberal, free-market candidate. A Muslim, he opposed Jammeh’s Dec. 2015 description of Gambia as an “Islamic republic” – a concern for the country’s eight-percent Christian minority.
However, although Kandeh has won unexpected political prominence within a short space of time, some opposition supporters consider him an inappropriate alternative because of his history with the Gambian leader, their main political foe since 1994.
But Kandeh told Anadolu Agency that his time with the APRC was motivated by a desire to serve his own people who voted for him, arguing he has never been part of any decision that was against the interests of the Gambian people.
- Regime criticism -
Gambia’s controversial president came to power through a bloodless coup in 1994 with promises of transparency, accountability and probity and has since won four elections, although their credibility has been challenged.
Critics have accused Jammeh of suppressing dissent and jailing opponents, journalists and human rights defenders. He is often accused of severe human rights abuses by the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Many Gambian political analysts have rated Kandeh for his ability to draw a crowd though his APRC career and the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) party have also pulled in huge numbers at recent political rallies.
Sidi Sanneh, a former minister under President Jammeh and now a dissident based in the U.S. who blogs on Gambian politics, told Anadolu Agency that Kandeh’s crowd-pulling ability has made him a force to be reckoned with.
“If that could be translated into votes, he will undoubtedly be able to pull a lot of votes away from the APRC and from the National Reconciliation Party [NRP],” Sanneh said.
However, Sanneh said it is still unclear how the new party might affect the support base of the ruling APRC and the NRP.
Gambia has a population of 1.9 million people with an electorate of about 700,000. It has nine political parties, including the APRC plus two independent presidential candidates ahead of December’s contest.
Analysts say the scramble for opposition supporters by parties and the two independents will likely overshadow their chances against President Jammeh given the slim chance of them forming a coalition.
However, this will also be the first time a presidential candidate will emerge, as is claimed of Kandeh, who could appeal to the same demographic as Jammeh since he came to power.
A Gambia civil society leader who is now a political activist, Madi Jobarteh, told Anadolu Agency that the coming of Kandeh might be a “blessing in disguise for UDP”.
UDP leader, lawyer Ousainou Darboe, and several party executives are currently serving a three-year jail term after leading a protest over the death in custody of their party’s youth leader in April.
Jobarteh argued that the GDC’s ability to win over Jammeh supporters is not enough to win the presidential election, adding that forming a coalition would be the best strategy for the various opposition factions.
He observed that Kandeh’s appeal to APRC supporters is not enough for him to beat the ruling party since he is not breaking into the support base of the main opposition UDP.
“If Mamma is eating into the APRC support base then it means he still cannot win the election because he is merely sharing the vote with another party, which cannot even be 50-50,” Jobarteh argued.
He contended that Kandeh’s ability to win over APRC supporters might in fact serve the interest of the UDP whose support base, he said, has increased since their April clash with the authorities which led to the incarceration of their leaders.
He added: “They must seek a coalition to ensure victory…For me, a coalition is non-negotiable.”