“People get the government they deserve” Alexis de Tocqueville
Since the restoration of multiparty politics in 1996, elections in The Gambia have been flawed by worryingly low voter turnout, especially among the youth. Although there is no data on the number of young people between the ages of 18-35 that voted or otherwise, one can argue that a great majority of young people in Gambia do not vote despite their demographic advantage. The issue could be linked to a lack of interest or seeming discontent with Gambian politics and as such, resisting the whole political establishment.
The figures in the previous presidential and parliamentary elections vividly describe this phenomenon. Presidential elections usually register higher voter turnout than parliamentary elections. For instance, during the Presidential election of 1996, the voter turnout was 80%. A 9.71% increase (89.71%) was recorded in 2001.
In 2006, this figure declined to 58.58% and in 2011, it rose again to 82.55%. In 2006, a percentage larger than those who voted for the incumbent APRC did not vote. The increased in 2011 elections could be attributed to the intensive nationwide youth voter education campaigns that were carried out by youth groups such as National Youth Parliament.
The parliamentary figures on the other hand are at an all-time low. The 1997, 2002, 2007 and 2012 turnouts were 73.2%, 56.38%, 41.70%, and 19.44% respectively. The primary explanation for the low turnout in 2007 and 2012 could be attributed to electoral boycotts by the United Democratic Party (UDP). In 2011, apart from the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), all other parties boycotted the parliamentary and local government elections.
With yet another electoral cycle in the horizon, will the trend continue or will young people vote for change?
In 2011, I presented a paper Political Apathy Amongst Gambian Youth: Case Study of Youth in Serekunda at the Senior Student Research Colloquium organized by the School of Arts and Sciences, The University of The Gambia. The paper which surveyed a group of 100 youth between 18-35 years, was presented just a day before the 2011 Presidential election. The aim was to search for better answers to identify and understand the problem of youth political apathy in The Gambia and how it affects the country’s democratization process. The idea was informed by the fact that about 65% of The Gambia’s population is made up of young people between 18-35 years of age. Yet, the same group shows all signs of “lack of interest” in their own welfare, or so I thought and concluded.
While doing the research, I was also engaged in youth voter education as part of my American Corner Project (Young Gambian Leadership Program). Within a period of two months, the program, funded by the American Embassy, was able to organize several radio talk shows led by young people targeting their peers. At the same time also, the National Youth Parliament was engaged in an intensive voter education project targeting young people across the country. The outcome of all these efforts resulted in a higher voter turnout than the 2006 Presidential elections.
The outcome of the 2011 Presidential elections, in terms of voter turnout, showed a different picture to what I had observed in my paper that Gambian youth lack interest in politics. Today, I am revisiting the same phenomenon as we approach another election year. This time, with a wider perspective and a more critical outlook on Gambian youth and politics as informed by years of interaction both online and at home. As such, I posited that the low voter turnout is not as a result of lack of interest in politics, rather it is both a conscious and subconscious strategy by young people to protest against the political system in place.
With the current political climate in The Gambia that curtails certain fundamental rights, also forcing many into self-censorship, many young people do not see the need to vote. They do not even believe that their votes count. They are convinced that voting will not change the situation nor will it remove the APRC from power. They fear that Jammeh will not step down even if defeated.
This lack of trust in our political system was not just developed in a day; it grew from perceived irregularities in the entire political machinery from lack of press freedom, APRC usage of state resources, the lack of a solid alternative to Jammeh, a weak and divided opposition, a lack of trust in the Independent Electoral Commission, unlevelled playing field, low civic education, domination of politics by older generation, lack of opportunities for young people within political parties, to the notion of rigging of election results.
However, I am not very convinced that rigging of votes takes place in The Gambia. I observed the last elections and I have seen the way ballot boxes are arranged and votes counted afterwards. Equally, the presence of party representatives makes it less likely for such to happen. Elections in The Gambia are lost and won during the voter registration process. I will discuss this perhaps in my next blog.
Young people are faced with a dilemma of who to vote for. Most of the youth that I interacted with want to see a change of government, bringing in one that protects and respects their basic freedom, one that creates an enabling environment filled with dignified jobs, accessible and affordable tertiary education among many other things. Above all they want to see a democratic Gambia. However, they are not convinced by all the politicians in place. In fact, none has a tangible plan for all these. President Jammeh is not good enough but who to replace him with is the predicament.
For the longest, we have focused our attention on President Jammeh and his government, and ignored the opposition. The reason why many young people do not vote is not entirely dependent on Jammeh. See, Jammeh has been in power for about 22 years and all that time, he has the same people to compete against. Ousainou Darboe has been at the helm of United Democratic Party (UDP) for 22 years; likewise, Hamat Bah for National Reconciliation Party (NRP). Although, Halifa Sallah and Sidi Jatta have been “alternating” the leadership of People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) they have been in the game for far too long. Structurally, one can argue that PDOIS differ from all other parties.
However, the point here is that all political leaders have over stayed. Political parties in The Gambia are undemocratic, highly personalized and are properties of the leadership. About 90% of party finances come from party leaders. The one who foots the bill dictates the direction of the party. Secondly, it seems like opposition parties do not understand what their role in the political process is. They can hardly initiate a program of their own; instead, they heavily depend on the blunders that Jammeh makes to eventually release simple statements of opposition. Some think the whole idea of an opposition is just to oppose anything the government does or says. That is not enough. We deserve more.
I would also like to highlight the failure of the opposition parties to unite and put forward a single candidate. Since 2001, young people both in The Gambia and the diaspora have been calling for such. An attempt was made in 2006, but failed just before nomination. Since then all we see from opposition parties is rhetoric and more of it. If the goal of contesting in election is to remove Jammeh, then a divided opposition will never succeed. I am not saying that any single candidate will remove Jammeh automatically, but I believe it will serve as a motivation factor and make life easier for the undecided youth voters.
All the points mentioned above and many other counts as deterrent factors to youth engagement in partisan politics especially during voting. I have received many questions from young people on why they should get a voters card and even vote. To me these young people do not lack interest. They are just not convinced that their votes will make a difference. I have not formulated a convincing answer yet, but I hope those that are thinking of not voting will reconsider. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “voting is the corner stone for political action.” If one wants a change of government, the only platform provided for you legitimately is election. Make it count.
We have been crying for far too long about the closed political space in The Gambia, the human rights violations, unemployment, illegal migration etc. December 1st 2016 should be decisive moment. It should show our concern as young people, or we can just not vote and allow the system to continue. Here is the catch. In 2006, the number of people that didn’t vote at all was way more than those that voted for Jammeh. Maybe if all the young people had voted, there could have been a change of government. 2006 is gone. 2016 is another opportunity to make changes. Not voting will keep Jammeh in power; voting and not voting for him will remove him.
The choice is yours to make. You may refuse to vote and the system continues, or choose to vote and bring about change. We can blame Jammeh all we want, we can point blame fingers to others for our own predicament. However, our destiny is in our own hands. What we should now know is that change doesn’t come on a silver platter. If we desire it, we must follow the democratic ways by voting, and voting for change. Remember “people get the government they deserve.”