Alliance and Coalition Politics in The Gambia1960-2016: A Preliminary Analytical Survey


Alliance and Coalition Politics in The Gambia1960-2016: A Preliminary Analytical Survey

The Concept of Political Coalition 

A political coalition denotes a temporary union of two or more social agents or political parties for the purpose of collectively achieving an outcome or objective which could not be achieved by any single member acting independently. According to Bidycet Chakrabarty who studied coalition politics in India, (a country known for its fragmented party system –a function of the character of the polity), coalition building processes inherently include both accretion, the convergence of ideologically heterogeneous parties and segmentation due to the frequent conflicts and divisions among participating entities (Forging Power: Coalition Politics in India, 2006).

Coalitions are associated with parliamentary democracies and they may be formed either before elections or post-elections, although the later has received more research attention over the past decades. Two broad views have dominated the studies of either pre or post-election coalitions. The first of these was more forcefully advanced by William Riker in his pioneering work, The Theory of Political Coalitions (1962). Riker argued that the desire for office is the principal motivating factor that drives political parties to form coalitions and that, as office provides ‘fixed rewards’, a coalition should not be larger than the minimal winning size (size principle) to ensure that the rewards of office (payoffs) are not shared with others whose contribution to winning may be negligible and whose participation in the coalition may be superfluous (C. Mershon, The Costs of Coalition, Stanford University Press, 2002). In other words, a winning coalition in the first place should include only relevant agents, and the allocation of cabinet portfolios must be limited only to coalition partners who made significant contributions to the success of the coalition and not to any other insignificant partners.

The second set of theories emphasizes the policy motives of political parties. This approach treats political actors as policy seekers rather than office seekers, namely that they are more interested in having certain policies implemented once they enter government. According to this approach, parties coalesce with others with whom they share policy preferences in a minimum connected winning coalition. As these parties are connected by policy choices and with less policy distance among them, there is less likelihood of conflict among participants unlike under the power or office seeking arrangements (C. Plott, “A Notion of Equilibrium and its Possibility Under Majority Rule”, American Economic Review V. 57, 1967).

In general, all domestic political alliances and coalitions tend to be short-run arrangements, unlike some strategic international alliances which involve higher levels of cooperation and longer-term perspectives.  Coalitions go through a three-phase life cycle- formation, management or governance and termination, and what happens in stage one can have significant effects on the succeeding phases. The quality of the agreements reached for the formation of any coalition is always crucial. Carefully crafted coalition agreements are considered permanently binding and may be altered only with the full consent of the signatories ( Kyle Hyndman and Debraj Ray, “Coalition Formation with Binding Agreements”, Review of Economic Studies, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Oct., 2007), pp. 1125-1147). Conventionally, coalition agreements are duly signed and widely publicized for the general information of the electorate. In high literate societies this process could include extensive media coverage and the publication and distribution of copies of the signed documents. In some instances the coalition agreements may involve multiple documents each of which deals with some specific aspects of the coalition. For example, in the case of the Conservative-Liberal Democrats Coalition of 2010 in Britain, following the  general election  of that year which resulted  in a hung parliament, (with no party emerging with an overall majority in the House of Commons), three distinct agreements were signed by the two sides, Prime Minister David Cameron for the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats: 1) the Interim Agreement setting out key policies agreed by the parties, 2) the Programme for Government Agreement which provided details of the policy objectives of the coalition and 3) the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform also known as the Procedure Agreement. (R. Hazel et al., The politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrats Government Works, Oxford 2012). In spite of this elaborate set of agreements, the coalition could not avoid a major friction over the Liberal Democrats’ long- standing objective of replacing the House of Lords with a more democratic voter-chosen chamber, an idea that was scuppered by the Conservatives even though it was included in the Coalition Agreement. Apart from this major pressure point, the two parties had some other serious policy differences during the course of the coalition to the extent that their leaders had shouting matches, and during one confrontation in 2013 they nearly exchanged blows, as Cameron revealed in his recent book, For The Record (HarperCollins, 2019).

Although even the most well conceived coalition agreements do not always guarantee success, they, however, serve as useful foundational instruments for coalition building and management. In addition, several other factors are important in determining the effectiveness of political parties in partnership arrangements. In their study of local level coalition behavior T. Mizrahi and B. B. Rosenthal “Complexities of Coalition Building: Leaders’ Successes, Strategies, Struggles, and Solutions”, Social Work, Vol. 46, No.1 (January 2001) developed a useful framework for understanding coalitions. The framework comprises four components:  external conditions, commitment of actors, their contributions, and competence. This framework will be discussed in some detail and partially applied to the brief analysis of Coalition 2016 later.

Early Attempts in Alliance Politics

Alliance or coalition politics is not entirely new in The Gambia, although earlier pre-independence relationships between parties were low-key, tactical and ephemeral and largely involving mutual support pacts whereby one party supported the candidate of the other in districts it had not fielded candidates or in areas where the contending candidate of either partner party  might have been weak. The earliest such cooperative arrangement was between the Democratic Party (founded in 1951 by the Rev. J. C. Faye and the Gambia Muslim Congress formed in 1952 by I.M. Garba-Jahumpa. These parties forged an alliance, the Democratic Congress Alliance (DCA), for the first parliamentary elections of 1960; although the two parties started holding joint meetings in September 1959, they announced the formation of a “non-sectarian alliance’ on April 7, 1960 – just over a month before the election in late May. If the objective of the leaders of the alliance was to effectively counter the dominance of P.S. Njie and his United Party in Bathurst, they must have been shell-shocked by the results of the election: Except for the Jollof/Portuguese Town ward won by A. B. Njie, the DCA lost the rest of the five Bathurst constituencies including those of the alliance leaders. (Sulayman Nyang, “The Historical Development of Political Parties in The Gambia”, 1975; D. Perfect and A. Hughes, “Gambian Electoral Politics”, in A. Saine et al eds., State and Society in The Gambia,Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press 2012.


Before the 1962 parliamentary elections, the PPP and DCA also formed a mutual support pact, with the results confirming the growing PPP influence especially in the protectorate, winning a total of 18 seats out of the 32 seats for the House while the DCA could only manage to retain its single Bathurst ward of Jollof/Portuguese Town. Realizing the unshakable strength of the UP in Bathurst, Jahumpa renamed his party the Congress Party, perhaps after having realized that the religious implications that the previous party (Gambia Muslim Congress) carried were not helpful. After this adjustment, he turned to P. S. Njie in a United Party/Congress Party alliance for the 1966 election. This time Jahumpa was able to win his Bathurst seat before breaking away from the UP, dissolving his party and joining the PPP in 1968.This move earned him important cabinet positions in the PPP administration, first as Minister of Health and later as Minister of Finance. According to Nyang (1975), even the PPP and UP formed a short-lived alliance shortly before independence and Perfect and Hughes (2012) have also noted the temporary United Party and National Liberation Party pact of 1977 and the National Convention Party and UP alliance of 1987; all of these alliance efforts were inconsequential as they had all failed to make any significant impact on electoral outcomes. Fundamentally, the pattern of alliance or coalition politics before independence up to the 1980s centered on transient and near-informal relationship building, without any long-term strategic considerations or binding agreements. During this period, most of the smaller or weaker parties found themselves in a quandary and were looking for any opportunities to enhance their electoral fortunes such as joining forces with bigger and stronger parties in decidedly asymmetric partnerships.

The 1994 Coup and the Advent of the Military in Gambian Politics

The banning of existing political parties following the military coup of 1994 marked the beginning of more than a two-decade long hiatus in free and fair political activities in the country. Although two new parties were formed shortly after the ban, notably the United Democratic Party and the National Reconciliation Party (both emerged in 1996),it was not until the ban was lifted in 2001 that other parties emerged, the National Democratic Action Movement founded in 2001 and the Gambia Moral Congress in 2009, In spite of these developments, the political landscape remained under the firm grip of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) and its successor political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) formed in 1996 when the leaders of the military coup morphed themselves into ‘civilian  politicians’. In anticipation of their active involvement in politics, the former military leaders ensured that the ground was well prepared for that purpose. The disarticulation of well-established political parties after the coup in 1994 and the launch of the Gambia’s first television service, which was used for the maximum exposure of the new rulers, among other initiatives such as the identification of transitional development projects, should be seen in that light. When the date was set for the post-coup presidential election in1996, the former junta leader and Presidential candidate for APRC made effective use of the benefits of incumbency, and when the official results of the election were released, they indicated that Yahya Jammeh, the APRC candidate, received 55.77% of the 394,537 votes cast; the UDP’s Ousainou Darboe came second with 35.84% followed by NRP’s Hamat Bah with 5.52% and Sidia Jatta of PDOIS with 2.87%.

With Jammeh and the APRC maintaining their predominance in every sphere of political activity in the country, the results of the next presidential election in 2001 mirrored the pattern of the outcome of the1996 contest with Jammeh at the top of the pack of the presidential contestants having emerged with 52.84% of the votes cast, Darboe of the UDP 32.59%, Hamat Bah, NRP 7.78% and Sheriff Mustapha Dibba of the National Convention Party (NCP) with 3.77%. Darboe’s level of performance in 2001 was slightly below what he attained five years earlier, even though on this occasion he got the backing of the PPP and the Gambian Peoples Party of Assan Musa Camara both of which were in the difficult process of resurrecting their once vigorous forays into politics after the ban was lifted only a few months before the election.

Multiparty Coalitions and Segmentation 2006, 2011

In 2005, following the lifting of the ban on pre-coup political parties a few years earlier, opposition parties in the country took a major step to form a broad-based coalition of five parties, called the National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD) in order to mount a credible and rigorous challenge to the incumbent, Yahya Jammeh of the APRC for the 2006 presidential election. The constituent parties of the coalition included the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the United Democratic Party (UDP) the National Democratic Action Movement (NDAM) and the National Reconciliation Party (NRP). The formation of this alliance was greeted with great interest and anticipation within the ranks of opposition supporters at home and abroad. Intriguingly, however, some months passed after the official launch of the alliance without any information as to who would head the new organization as flag bearer and presidential candidate. As reports began to emerge on persistent discordance among the constituent party leaders on the selection of a flag bearer, the initial euphoria that greeted the creation of the alliance started to subside dramatically.  The general view was that the leaders were more interested in power for themselves rather than focusing on identifying and selecting a capable and credible leader who could pose a robust challenge to the incumbent in the presidential election. The problems came to a head when the leader of the UDP, Ousainou Darboe withdrew from the alliance on the grounds that there were growing tensions within NADD, thus a serious attempt at a coordinated opposition to the APRC regime was effectively bollixed. Many observers, however, believed that Darboe decided to leave when it became evident that he would not be the presidential candidate for the election. As noted by the Commonwealth Observer team, which was in the country for the electon, “When it became clear that Mr Darboe would not be the NADD’s choice as Presidential candidate for the 2006 Presidential Election he decided to leave in February 2006, citing growing tensions within the NADD as his main reason. Some observers have suggested that Mr Darboe may have felt that as the leader of the largest opposition party he would stand a much better chance of defeating the President than any of his colleagues in the coalition” (Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group: The Gambia Presidential Election, 22 September 2006).

Finally and to the chagrin of opposition supporters and sympathizers NADD’s rupture under the weight of power seeking impulses, personality incompatibilities and low-level commitment to core alliance objectives was complete when the group split into two factions. Hamat Bah of the NRP also deserted NADD and joined Ousainou Darboe in an alliance with Darboe as the presidential candidate, while the remaining members of NADD stuck together and selected Halifa Sallah of PDOIS as their presidential candidate. This split in the opposition set the stage for a certain victory of the incumbent Yaya Jammeh. When the official results were released they simply confirmed what many expected- a decisive victory for the incumbent who polled 67.33% of the votes against approximately 32.67% for the two opposition contenders combined (26.69% for Darboe and about 6.0% for Sallah).

Five years later and in preparation for the next presidential election in 2011, the opposition remained unfettered and unworried about their dreary attempts at unity and the resultant poor performance at the polls in 2006, and demonstrated once more their inability to contain susceptibilities of some partners to singularity and polarization. Again as the Point Newspaper reported (October 31, 2011) after weeks of talks among several political parties they failed to produce agreement on who should lead a possible coalition. That deadlock due largely to conflicting objectives among party leaders delivered the coup de grace to another opportunity for a unified opposition to Yaya Jammeh’s regime. Conflict of interests is a typical problem in inter-party collaborative efforts, symptomatic of the unity versus identity crisis in coalition politics, namely unity for a common purpose versus singular preoccupation with individual party identity. As a result, Darboe of UDP went on his own as presidential candidate thus preserving the identity of his party while four other parties NRP, GPDP, NADD and PDOIS, committing themselves to the supremacy of unity over individual party identity, formed a United Front coalition, with Hamat Bah as the presidential candidate (Report of the Commonwealth Expert Team Gambia Presidential Elections 24 November 2011).  The efforts of the four constituent parties of the United Front, however, proved inadequate. As in 2006, the segmented opposition of 2011 handed the incumbent candidate, Yahya Jammeh, yet another predictable and easy victory, winning re-election by 71.5% against less than 30% for both Darboe of the UDP (17.4%)  and Bah of the United Front (11.1%).

Coalition 2016: Triumph, Strife and Implosion

The December 2016 presidential election represented a watershed moment in the history of party politics in the Gambia: Seven political parties under the banner of Coalition 2016 stood firmly together, harmoniously selected a flag bearer (in the person Adama Barrow as the non-party affiliated independent presidential candidate) and campaigned vigorously together to successfully topple an entrenched incumbent in the presidential election of December 1, 2016. The official results showed that on the basis of the plurality voting system, Adama Barrow, the Coalition 2016 candidate came on top with 43.3%, the incumbent Yahya Jammeh 39.6% and Mama Kandeh of the Gambia Democratic Congress 17.1% of the total valid votes of 525,963.  Without a doubt, an unusual concatenation of circumstances must have accounted for this historic achievement of Gambian political parties working together as a single agent in a presidential election. Among the likely factors that accounted for the unexpected but highly welcomed development may include the following: The growing disenchantment with the Yahya Jammeh regime which created a favorable environment for unified opposition challenge to the regime; the sustained pressure exerted by Diaspora activists including opposition donors for the opposition parties to unite in order to have a reasonable chance of defeating Jammeh; perhaps a “failure fatigue” on the part of the opposition arising from their record of defeats by Jammeh due to the recurrent fragmentation in their ranks and were now ready to put that record behind them and forge a truly united front- in other words, past failures underpinning fresh determination; and finally, what some observers describe as the “absence of Darboe factor”. This has to do with the fact that Ousainou Darboe , leader of UDP did not personally participate in the negotiations for forming Coalition 2016 and the selection of its flag bearer. At the time of the formation of the coalition and selection of a flag bearer,  Darboe  was serving a prison sentence following his trial along with other UDP leaders for peacefully demonstrating in the wake of the arrest, torture  and eventual death of a key militant of the UDP, Solo Sandeng. It was generally believed among observers that Darboe, as the leader of the largest opposition party had in the past felt that he would stand a much better chance of defeating the incumbent President than any of his colleagues, an attitude said to have contributed to gridlock, virtual paralysis and defeats for the opposition in 2006 and 2011, In the study of coalitions, the past behavior of a political party toward partnering with other parties could be a useful guide to understanding the position it might adopt in future negotiations on partnership formation (Margit Tavits, “The Role of Parties’ Past Behavior in Coalition Formation”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 102, No. 4 Nov., 2008)

Following the coalition’s victory in the presidential election, the constituent parties initiated discussion on the approach to adopt for parliamentary elections which were scheduled in April 2017. The majority of the partners including the independent president, Adama Barrow, wanted the coalition to continue as a single entity to field parliamentary candidates in its name. The largest opposition party, the UDP preferred to field its own candidates and in the end talks broke down and each party went on to campaign on its own platform. The results confirmed the UDP as the largest party, winning 31 of the 53 parliamentary seats. Three other coalition member parties, NRP, PDOIS and PPP each won 5, 4 and 2 seats respectively while two other member parties the Gambia Moral Congress and the DPDP both failed to win any seat. The failure of the coalition partners to adopt a unified approach to the parliamentary election suggests that during the short period of time they had to form the coalition the main priority was placed on the presidential election and no specific strategy was set out in their MOU on how to go about contesting the legislative elections. More significantly, this failure which prompted Agence France-Presse (AFP), to report that “Gambia coalition (was) near collapse over legislative election” (The Guardian, 10 March 2017), represented clearly an ominous presage for the Coalition 2016.

A second major significance of the victory of Coalition 2016 is that it also heralded a sea change in the pattern of governance in The Gambia- albeit in a manner that is essentially nominal and fundamentally symbolic. Since independence The Gambia has always had a single party government- the PPP government from 1965 to 1994, the AFPRC military rule from 1994-1996 and the APRC-led government from 1996-2016. This system of government changed ostensibly when President Barrow appointed his coalition cabinet in January 2017 comprising the representatives of all of the seven constituent parties of the coalition, except PDOIS, which reportedly opted out of joining the executive in favor of focusing on their legislative and oversight functions in the National Assembly. Of President Barrow’s first 19 member cabinet, 3 portfolio holding ministers were UDP members; 2 PPP; 1NRP; 1NCP; 1GPDP; 1 GMC and all the rest were non-party affiliated or designated as independents.  These appointments were made at the discretion of the President and the coalition partners but not based on a pre-arranged or a formally agreed formula on the allocation of policy portfolios as is normally the case in both pre-election and post election coalition agreements. The only relevant provision in the Coalition 2016 MOU pertaining to cabinet appointments and the removal of ministers states that all such appointments and removals should be done in consultation with coalition partners specifically through the executive committee , one of the coalition’s policy organs. This intended approach toward collective decision making was soon abandoned. Although President Barrow does not belong to any political party (having relinquished his membership of the UDP as a condition of his selection as flag bearer of the coalition), his regime has gradually and effectively  taken on the form of presidential administration implying a strong executive arm rather than collective governance as practiced in coalition governments. The President reportedly adopted this approach on the advice of the leader of his former party, Ousainou Darboe of the UDP, upon the latter’s release from prison following the inauguration of President Barrow. Before his resignation from the UDP to stand as an independent candidate under the banner of the coalition, Barrow was Darboe’s staunch disciple and during the campaign for the presidential election and in the immediate aftermath of the election Barrow consistently demonstrated considerable reverence to his political mentor. It was not therefore surprising that the new President would give his ear to Darboe on various matters of governance.

On the question of the powers of the President the advice reportedly given to Barrow was that under the 1997 Constitution, the President is an executive president with the power to hire and fire portfolio holders without deference to any other authority or body. This argument is indeed valid just as the presidential term of office is valid as prescribed by the constitution. Consultations with coalition members alone, however, do not diminish executive power but gives some recognition to consultative decision making in the spirit of the coalition agreement, provided that the coalition partners consistently appreciate the stark fact that the provisions of the constitution are always supreme. The adoption of executive presidency is understandable in another sense: There is no path dependency for a coalition style governmental arrangement or practice in The Gambia’s governance history since independence. Coalition governments in many countries have been path dependent, relying on the past experience of previous coalition governments to conduct government business on a stable basis and to ensure historical continuities in governance practices. In The Gambia, the trend has always been a dominant single party government with an executive president (since the attainment of republican status in 1970) whereby the exercise of executive power under the doctrine of collective responsibility sets the standard for system-wide institutional behavior, and nothing resembling coalitional governance which entails multiple political parties collectively running state affairs within a formalized multiparty agreement. So the current government supposedly a Coalition 2016 government was from the onset essentially compelled to follow the single party governance imprint in consonance with the provisions of the current constitution.

This issue of the executive exercise of power together with other factors, explain why Coalition 2016 which was successfully forged in opposition to autocratic rule, botched up early in the process of democratic governance. The first major sign of disharmony and distress  within the coalition government was the dismissal of Fatoumata  Jallow-Tambajang, (who served as chair of the coalition), as Vice President less than one year after she was formally sworn -in on 9 November 2017. She was replaced by Ousainou Darboe (former Foreign Minister) who served in that capacity from 29 June 2018 until he was also sacked on 15 March 2019 along with two ministers belonging to his UDP party. These were critical events pointing to a major schism that was brewing between the President and the leadership of his former party. The events also reflected some possible serious conflict of interest between President Barrow and the UDP elements in the government. Conflicts of interest theories have been useful in determining not only the success or failure of coalition building but also the duration or life span of coalitions  and empirical studies have shown that the less conflict there is among participating agents, the more the likelihood of successful coalition formation and the more likely that the coalition would have a longer duration. The reverse hypothesis also tends to hold.

To amplify earlier allusions to the factors that might have contributed to the successful emergence of Coalition 2016 and its subsequent historic electoral victory over Yahya Jammeh and his APRC party, and in order to have a better understanding of the ongoing tensions and strife within the coalition (which to some has already imploded), it would be useful to examine the evolution of the coalition in the broad context of the analytical framework cited earlier in the introduction. The framework comprises four components relevant to evaluating the success  or failure of a coalition: First, external conditions- the economic, political and the general social conditions must be right to support the formation of a coalition; second, the commitment of the key actors is essential for the achievement of the coalition objective; third, participating agents are expected to make contributions in terms of resources, power, ideology and so on and  finally, a coalition that has been successfully formed must have the competence to maintain its leadership core and its support base in order to fulfill its ultimate goals .

External Conditions: In the Gambia prior to the formation of Coalition 2016, it could be surmised that the situation was generally conducive to a successful mobilization of the opposition to challenge the incumbent who had ruled the country with an iron fist for two decades. For example, on the economic front, the coalition partners in their MOU, described the broad economic environment under the APRC government prior to the election as being in a state of disequilibrium with a negative growth rate in agriculture in 2014, persistent budget deficits, continuing joblessness and poverty for a large portion of the population. This broad description reflected the IMF assessment of the country’s economic situation in 2015 as outlined in the Fund’s Press Release of September 21, 2015 on the Gambia. In this Release the Fund highlighted the existing large balance of payments and fiscal imbalances due in large part to persistent policy slippages, compounded by the impact of the Ebola outbreak in the sub-region on tourism and poor performance in agriculture in 2014 due in part to delayed rains. The release also noted the deteriorating fiscal position and increasing inflationary pressures reflecting the government’s “inconsistent macroeconomic policies”.

Apart from the suboptimal performance of the economy in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, many Gambian communities were gripped by fear and uncertainty due to the repressive nature of the regime. Beneath the pervasive sense of unease and disillusion, however, there was also a deep-rooted and growing desire for change. These and allied factors such as the pressure of Diaspora activists calling on all parties to come together to challenge the incumbent in the election, might have contributed to the successful formation of the coalition as far as external influences were concerned.

Commitment of Principal Actors: On the question of the commitment of the core team of the coalition there appears to be convincing evidence that the key actors showed considerable will and unity of purpose which enabled them to successfully select a flag bearer and to remain firmly focused on the mission of the coalition- by maintaining pre-election unity and campaigning vigorously for victory in the election. In addition they were able to work together closely to produce their core documents, a Manifesto and a Memorandum of Understanding within a limited time frame, and in the end they achieved a historic victory in spite of enormous barriers and risks. These documents outlined the broad economic and social development objectives of the coalition and set out essential “house cleaning” tasks particularly in the all-important area of human rights and justice to pave the way for a new democratic government, such as granting of amnesty for prisoners of conscience, withdrawal of meritless pending cases in the courts and the release of all unlawfully detained persons.  During the political impasse the leadership also showed enormous courage and determination until the reluctant loser at the polls eventually relinquished power and went into exile paving the way for the legitimate ascendancy of the coalition’s flag bearer as President.

Member Contributions: The contributions of constituent parties to the efforts of a coalition are always critical. Contributions constitute a range of resources and assets that may include cash, the size, capacity and power or influence of parties (especially over voters), knowledge and skills as well as time and energy that may be invested in the pursuit of coalition goals. In theory, parties in a coalition are awarded cabinet positions in accordance with efforts they make in support of the coalition. For instance, according to Gamson’s law of proportionality, coalition actors expect to secure their fair share of office payoffs, which, in many parliamentary democracies, reflect the proportion of their contributions, such as the number of seats they bring to the legislature in the case of post-election coalition government formation.(Carroll, R., & Cox, G. (2007). The Logic of Gammon’s Law: Pre-election Coalitions and Portfolio Allocations. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 51(2), 300-313). The allocation of portfolios, however, does not always reflect the capacity or strength a party brings to a coalition. In some instances, and in the interest of stability, each member party is rewarded government position unrelated to its overall contribution. This principle appears to have been applied in the case of Coalition 2016, although information about the contributions that each of the parties made to the budget of the coalition, the specific roles played by each party in erecting the coalition and managing its electoral campaign is scanty. It is understood, however, that the key players, the UDP, PDOIS and the PPP as well as Diaspora donors contributed to the fulfillment of the financial deposit requirement for the coalition candidate and that virtually all the parties played some active roles in various activities of the coalition.

Under a headline titled: “Coalition 2016 and the ‘Missing’ Campaign Funds: Financial Report Submitted for Scrutiny,” the Chronicle in its issue of 15 April 2019 reported that “The financial committee of the Coalition 2016 has submitted its report to the stakeholders for scrutiny following allegations that a big chunk of the campaign funds for the 2016 presidential election has not been accounted for”. The funds in question were reportedly part of donations made by Gambians abroad to support the coalition’s campaign efforts. Efforts to throw some like on this issue have not produced any significant results, as a number of key coalition partners consulted could not confirm that the matter has been settled.

This issue about financial accountability is perhaps one of several others that suggest that the inner workings of coalition 2016 in spite of the historic electoral success have been basically opaque. For instance, information has been limited on the reasons for the removal of certain cabinet ministers and no official announcement had been made on why a prominent founding member of the coalition, PDOIS, was not represented in the initial coalition cabinet. On the matter of differences between individual coalition members some issues had surfaced the details of which have not been entirely clear. For  example, in early 2017, Halifa Sallah, the secretary general of the PDOIS apparently in reaction to comments allegedly made by some “political party leader” suggesting that PDOIS was an enemy of the coalition issued the following warning (as reported under the headline,Halifa threatens to reveal coalition parties’ contributions to campaign budget”, Point Newspaper of March 13, 2017):If any political party leader ever says again that PDOIS is an enemy of the coalition, the PDOIS would reveal the amount it contributed to the coalition campaign budget and compare that to the contribution of the party concerned”. He further warned that “Anybody who perpetrates this act of promoting fictions as facts will be exposed and discredited,”

Many observers are aware that PDOIS was among the key players that were instrumental in forging the coalition, delivering the historic electoral victory and contributing to the diffusion  of the political impasse occasioned by the former president’s refusal to hand over power after his defeat at the polls.  Why any senior coalition partner would describe DPOIS as an “enemy of the coalition” is not clear. That notwithstanding, however, the PDOIS party’s warning raises two important issues about the coalition: First, contributions that individual parties made to the overall budget of the coalition should not be a secret. The voters and the public in general deserve to have a complete account of the efforts that every partner, and indeed outside donors, made to the success of the coalition in terms of cash allocation, value allocation, knowledge contribution, positive interactional contribution and the degree of commitment to the core objectives of the coalition.  Observers may have their assumptions but complete voluntary disclosures would be the surest way of eliminating all forms of speculation. It would have been useful if PDOIS had also challenged the offending political party to produce evidence that PDOIS was an enemy of the coalition. Maybe they did but that was not reflected in the newspaper article cited here. Second, DPOIS’s warning to a coalition partner published in a newspaper, suggests that Coalition 2016 lacked any effective or credible internal mechanism for resolving disputes among members. If such a mechanism was in place it would have been more appropriate for members to address their differences behind closed doors. In well organized coalitions various forms of communication channels are provided, such as periodic formal and informal meetings among members, as a way of obviating the buildup of misunderstandings and grievances.

Coalition Competence: This relates to the ability of the coalition as an organization to build upon its initial successes and to move forward towards its ultimate goals. To succeed in this phase it must be able to maintain not only its leadership core but its membership base as well. Coalition 2016 sprang up with enormous public exuberance from a rare political camaraderie among Gambian political parties and  delivered a victory that created fresh opportunities for the revival of democracy in the country. As noted earlier, however, within the first year and a half of its government, Coalition 2016’s core leadership began to fracture at the top, first with the sacking of Mai Fatty (leader of the Moral Congress Party) as Interior Minister in November 2017 and in the summer of 2018, the removal of two active co-founders of the coalition -the Vice president,  Fatoumato Tambajang and the Agriculture Minister, Omar A. Jallow  of the PPP. Further instability at the top was marked by the firing of Ousainou Darboe leader of the UDP who replaced Fatoumata Tambajang as Vice President  in March 2019 along with two other cabinet ministers who are senior members of the UDP. In addition, the controversy among coalition members  over whether the President should step down after three years as  stipulated in the coalition agreement or whether he should serve for five years which is the constitutionally  sanctioned tenure of office for the  president has also  had a corrosive effect on the unity of the coalition. In this controversy the UDP leader has again featured prominently. After his release from prison he at some point reportedly expressed his willingness to  defend the President in court against any efforts aimed at forcing him to step down after three years. Recently, the dismissed former vice-president’s party, the UDP, urged the President to comply with the coalition agreement and stand down, a clear departure from Darboe’s own earlier position on the issue.

The hubble-bubble created about the three-year-transition mandate especially in the social media has in a sense been no more than a storm in a tea cup. The central argument for the advocates of the  three-year transition mandate is that the President had promised to adhere to the coalition agreement and therefore, as a leader he should honor his promise in order  to gain the confidence of his  followers. On the other hand, those who posit that the President should serve his full term of five years as provided for in the constitution, claim that the three-year argument is utterly untenable under the law. Even among the architects of the coalition, different narratives exit. For example, Omar Jallow once remarked that the three-year term limit was “imposed” on the coalition’s presidential candidate. In a recent interview published in the Point Newspaper of 27 December 2019, President Barrow himself stated that he was not present at the meeting of coalition leaders when they were discussing the three-year mandate and that he did not even see the coalition documents until after he was elected as president: “I can tell you that even when those discussions were taking place, I was not there. Where they were discussing about the issues of this agreement I was not present there. I can tell you that I have never seen all those documents until when I was elected as president”.

For his part, Henry Gomez, the leader of the GPDP in an interview on Fatunetwork in November 2018 stated that it was because of “greed” that made coalition negotiators to accept the three- year transition mandate: “When we were negotiating about this three years issue and five years issue, all of us knew that the constitution said five years but none of us challenged it. And we all decided for the three years. But between us, some of us were too greedy. Let’s just be honest. Because no one trusted the other… So for all of us, the five years was too much.”

Halifa Sallah, the PDOIS leader has a different view. In a statement delivered in the National Assembly, and reported on the Fatunetwork in October this year he stated firmly that they were mindful of the constitutional provision relating to the presidential term of office, but that the adoption of the three-year tenure for the transitional president was meant to serve as a “tactic”.  It would seem that the explicit intent of the negotiators was that such a tactic could help to bring all the actors on board in order to ensure a stable and sustainable process of building the coalition. In that regard the three-year transition was more palatable to most than five years. Given the ongoing controversy over the transition arrangements the three-year proposition was in essence, a sweet pill intended to secure the commitment of all the relevant actors, but which turned out to be too bitter to swallow by many within and outside the coalition given the President’s outright rejection of the three-year mandate and his firm insistence on serving the full presidential term of five years. . Nonetheless the choice of applying tactics in political negotiations is consistent with decision making processes within the framework of rational choice theory whereby actors make decisions that are aligned with or that reflect their personal preferences or objectives. In the case of Coalition 2016, the parties that came together for the common purpose of winning an election against an entrenched incumbent, were themselves competing agents each of which was conscious of its own interests to compete against the others at some date in the future, Under rational calculations and by spatial reasoning, the nearer that future date the better for all of them. In the grand scheme of things, three years was found to be more aligned to their preferences and therefore more appealing. It should be noted that some coalition leaders argued that the choice of the three-year mandate, apart from encouraging member commitment to the primary coalition object, was also intended to endear their candidate to the voters and to demonstrate to them that  the coalition supports leaders who hold high moral ground with the strength to resist all forms of what is described in their official documents as “self-perpetuating leadership”, in other words, the unrestrained elongation of incumbency,

In September 2019 some members of the coalition met with \President Barrow and later announced that they supported the President to serve for five years on grounds of the fact that he needed more time to complete his reform agenda. According to their spokesperson, Fatoumata Tambajang, the reform agenda of the coalition government “ is yet to be completed. So we have discussed it extensively with our flag bearer and on the basis of the incompletion of the reform agenda, we have decided as a coalition to give him, to extend his social legitimacy from three years to five years (Fatunetwork 27 September 2019).” Two prominent members of the coalition, PDOIS and UDP did not take part in that discussion. It was also clear that there was no reference to the constitution as justification for “extending” the mandate of the president to five years. In a percipient reaction to the announcement of that decision PDOIS described the move as futile and pointless as the president’s tenure of office is already confirmed by the constitution. This decision by some coalition members did not bring closure to the controversy.

This sequence of events implies that Coalition 2016 has not demonstrated the ‘competence’ to maintain its entire core leadership. It should be noted, however, that a good number of the original leaders of the coalition remain firmly committed to their course and cohesive around the President. That notwithstanding, Coalition 2016 has lost its original luster. At the time of this writing, it was reported that the President who shed all ties to any political party in order to qualify as the coalition’s flag bearer has formed and registered his own political party. This latest action by the President is significant in a number of related ways. First, it erases any lingering vestige of Coalition 2016. Second, it nullifies another (less talked about) provision of the coalition agreement- that the Coalition flag bearer shall “not seek for re-election until after the five years after the transition period”. Finally, by this action the President has sent out the signal that he has thrown down the gauntlet and is now officially girding for sustained political battle.

Lessons of Experience and the Prospects for Post-Transition Politics

After several unsuccessful  attempts at broad-based coalition building to mount a credible challenge to Yahya Jammeh’s regime, the leaders of seven political parties working together around a single candidate under the banner of Coalition 2016 delivered a landmark victory against Jammeh in the presidential election of that year. One of the immediate outcomes of that triumph was the restoration of freedom and with it the reenergizing of the free press, the strengthening of pressure groups, the dissipation of fear, guarded rumors and gossips all of which were replaced by overt expression of  political opinions at all levels of society. The triumph of Coalition 2016, however, also  opened up the gates of a new form of politics in The Gambia (however transient)- the politics of cooperation and bitter discordance among former allies happening almost simultaneously. Cooperation among all the constituent parties of the coalition was rife immediately after the election leading up to the formation of the first coalition government in the country’s history. The coalitional cooperative spirit soon gave way to bitter discordance and incessant acrimony particularly between the President’s high level team of supporters and the UDP leadership following the removal of the party leader, Ousainou Darboe and some cabinet ministers allied with his party from their positions in the coalition government. It has since become clear to many that winning an election is not the end of politics but the beginning of realpolitik.

As this thumbnail analysis has shown coalition 2016 has not been a consummate model of competent political collectives as far as effectively going through the full life cycle of political coalitions is concerned- successful formation, effective maintenance and appropriate or amicable termination. As noted earlier, research has shown that a large number of political coalitions tend to have short life spans. Coalition 2016’s troubles started soon after the coalition government was formed, including internal strife, simmering controversy over the three-year mandate of the coalition president as a agreed in their MOU, high profile sackings followed by virtual implosion at the very onset of the maintenance or governance phase. Incongruous relationships, variance in perceptions of end goals among partners were perhaps among several other factors that might have played some role in the virtual implosion of coalition 2016. What has become apparent as a result is that there is now an anomalous situation: There is a government that is peculiar to both a single dominant party government and a fully fledged coalition government. It is neither.  The serving President belongs to no political party with a strong parliamentary backing, and the largest opposition party has a substantial number of seats in the National Assembly. Yet the President remains strong in his position with the backing of a few small parties still in what remains of the coalition. This reflects in a sense, the President’s resilience and his possession of a high level threshold for absorbing random shocks such as the various and recurrent challenges he has faced including peevish and derisive attacks, criticisms and censure by some of his opponents and critics, and the ongoing vociferous wrangling over the three-year mandate even though the law is clearly on his side.  In other words, President Barrow has demonstrated some remarkable political skills at maintaining his staying power undaunted. He has also mastered the art of remaining focused on the big picture- paying heed to the Constitution and the rule of law, promoting the National Development Plan and what he recently described as his interest in “Gambia first”.

Apart from the current anomalous situation, which raises intriguing questions about coalition theory and conceptualization, objective observers of the Gambian political scene over the past three years who are familiar with wide ranging coalition successes and failures may learn a few important lessons about the rocky evolution of Coalition 2016 during this period and what best practices future coalition actors may wish to employ.

As previously mentioned, much of the controversy about the coalition agreement within and outside the coalition has centered on the issue of the transition mandate of three years as opposed to the constitutionally mandated presidential tenure of five years. No other issues about the coalition agreement, the reform agenda and sector priorities, the performance of the policy organs of the coalition, the power of ministerial appointments and removals, for example, have received as much attention as the three-year question has received. Perhaps, the tenure issue conveys greater political sex appeal than any other, as any early return to elections would provide the opportunity for political parties and their supporters to once again test their mettle at the ballot box; but the controversy has proved to be divisive. In broad terms, political coalition agreements, unlike some business contracts are rarely enforceable under the law; they are generally not ironclad contracts. Their enforceability lies in the first instance, with participating members acting with a firm united voice on any issue of disagreement. In the case of Coalition 2016 this approach has clearly been untenable as the three –year mandate issue had been one of the major precipitants of division within the coalition ever since the early days of the transition government. Furthermore, there appeared to be no effective mechanism and indeed the interest on the part of some members to turn to dialogue and consultations for the resolution of their differences. Putting together an effective internal mechanism for policing inter-agent behavior and resolving disputes is one of several coalition best practices identified by the National Democratic Institute based on its experience on coalition building and maintenance in various regions. The mechanism should be supported by regular communications among members including periodic meetings and informal consultations.

A second approach worthy of notice is for a coalition to appoint and fund an honest independent arbitrator to assist in the settlement of disputes or differences arising from the implementation of any ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ (GA), as Coalition 2016 agreement has been described by many. As the name denotes, such an agreement is essentially based on trust and mutual respect. For it to succeed, however, every participating member must also act in good faith. It therefore follows that if the terms of a GA are not honored for any reason, the problem arising as a result is simply reputational and not legal.

A third lesson to be learned, for the benefit of future coalition building efforts and maintenance, is to firmly anchor coalition agreements within the legal framework, as it happens in some countries. In Kenya, for example, the Political Parties Act of 2011 provides not only for the broad framework and guidelines within which political coalitions may be structured but also for both pre-election and post-election coalition agreements to be deposited with the Registrar of political parties thereby securing some legal recognition of the coalitions involved.. The office of the Registrar and the Political Parties Dispute Tribunal also serve as institutions directly involved in the resolution of disputes (Denis Kadima et al., “Kenya’s Decade of Experiments with Political Party Alliances and Coalitions”, Journal of African Elections, v 13, no.1 June 2014).

The foregoing observations are of course not exhaustive, but they serve to underscore some fundamental touchstones of successful political coalitions.

It is difficult to foresee the pattern of politics in The Gambia at the end of President Barrow’s five year transition tenure in 2021. One or two things, however, are clear: First with the proliferation of political parties, the days of the single dominant party governments may be over and coalition politics, while it might not necessarily be a permanent exigency of Gambian politics, could possibly become the norm rather than the exception for some time to come. Second, the long transition from authoritarian rule, which symbolically ended with the defeat of Yahya Jammeh in 2016 to the beginning of the regeneration of democratic practice with the inauguration of Adama Barrow in 2017 as a democratically elected President, would continue well beyond 2021, given the magnitude and complexities of the problems created over the preceding two decades.

In her illuminating book on The Legacies of Transition Governments in Africa: The Cases of Benin and Togo (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Jennifer Seely describes democratic transitions from authoritarian systems as a transformative experience with popular celebrations in the streets to mark the end of autocratic rule and to greet the dawn of a new and promising beginning. Gambians went through such celebratory experience when the former president accepted defeat after the 2016 presidential election and when jubilant mass of Gambians welcomed president-elect Barrow on his return from a short sojourn in Dakar in January 2017 to begin the difficult task of managing the transition process which requires skills and indeed some luck. According to Seely’s perceptive observation,

“Those who find themselves at the helm of a transition government are uniquely placed to face… (great)  challenges while under the scrutiny of observers both foreign and domestic. If the transition succeeds, then by definition the political system would be thoroughly overhauled. But even if the transition fails, the political elite cannot return to business as usual, as the political landscape has changed:.. The balance has shifted away from dictatorship, even if democracy has not been achieved”.

The circumstances described above have featured in transitional periods in a number of African countries from the early 1990’s but the success rate has varied from one country to another. For The Gambia, success will depend in large part on the full implementation of the ambitious transitional reform agenda, continued political stability and the successful preparation of the groundwork for sustained economic growth and expansion in tandem with increasing state responsiveness, transparency and public accountability. A capable civil service is a reflection of state effectiveness. No state or government will succeed without a steadily improving critical mass of educated, dedicated and skilled professional civil servants to provide the conduit for dependable policy execution. The benchmark test of success of the transition would therefore be the commencement of a major internally-driven civil service reform designed to revivify the established principles and traditions of the civil service, principally: Merit, Neutrality and Professionalism, and provide built-in renewal mechanisms within a well conceived institutional setup in order to restore not only its antecedent incandescent vitality but also, and more important, public confidence in its capacity to deliver critical services with predictable proficiency.

Dr. K. M. Bayo

January 02, 2020

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