BANJUL, The Gambia — Last month, President Adama Barrow won a landslide re-election victory against five other candidates in this country’s first free presidential election in almost 30 years. His impressive victory—with nearly twice as many votes as his main rival Ousainou Darboe, who leads the United Democratic Party (UDP)—could be partly chalked up to the power of incumbency and the fact that Barrow’s first administration followed 22 years of stifling authoritarian rule. However, as I discovered during my visit here for the election, he and his National People’s Party (NPP) also successfully played off divisive domestic debates about the role of identity in politics, pitching the vote as an existential choice between a “tribalist” and potentially violent future under Darboe and the UDP, or continued peace and tolerance under himself.
The Republic of The Gambia is a sliver of territory that, apart from a small, picturesque Atlantic coastline, is completely surrounded by neighboring Senegal. Of the country’s 2.5 million citizens, it is believed that the majority identify as Mandinka, followed closely by Fula, Jola, Wolof and a few other small ethnic groups. After some 75 years of British colonialism, The Gambia became independent in 1965 under the leadership of Dawda Jawara, who is remembered today for ensuring stability, democratic elections and basic human rights. However, in July 1994, he was overthrown in a coup by a junior army lieutenant named Yahya Jammeh who quickly set about building an authoritarian regime.
After 22 years of Jammeh’s brutal and erratic rule, a group of opposition political parties including the UDP agreed to form a coalition with Barrow, an unknown politician at the time, as their leader. The alliance won a surprise election victory in December 2016, and, after a tense two-month standoff, Jammeh fled to Equatorial Guinea. Barrow assumed the presidency with Darboe as his foreign affairs minister and later vice-president. However, after two years of an uneasy coalition government, Barrow sacked Darboe in March 2019 and set up his own fledgling political party, the NPP, which returned the UDP to its perennial opposition role and setting up the stakes for the 2021 election.
Unlike my voyage to Guinea in October, my trip to The Gambia was hardly my first time visiting “the smiling coast,” as Gambians like to refer to their country. During my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal from 2013 to 2016, I crossed the country many times to and from my post in the south and the capital, Dakar. As a young freelance journalist, I visited multiple times to write about the country’s emergence from autocracy. I later worked for a Gambian human rights organization helping shed light on the crimes committed by Jammeh’s regime. As I prepared to return ahead of the election as an ICWA fellow, I thought this newsletter would be about how the UDP’s grassroots political machinery would finally deliver against a weak incumbent with no base in a free and fair election. What follows is evidence of how mistaken this analysis had been.
I spent my first full day in The Gambia with Kemo Bojang, the 25-year-old national youth secretary-general for the UDP. With his yellow hat (yellow being the color of the UDP), massive frame and calm measured voice, he gave the impression of a gentle giant. Over Sunday brunch, he described how he came from a family of UDP supporters and became politically active toward the end of the Jammeh regime. We then moved to a hotel on the pristine Atlantic coast, where, over ice-cold Coca-Cola, I asked questions that fit my narrative.
We spoke about the repression the UDP faced during the Jammeh era, about the significant political machinery the party had built across the country, and about how if elected, its leadership would immediately institute sweeping reforms. I went back to my guest house that evening confident that the party’s grassroots base and progressive policies on government reform would give it a leg up in the upcoming election.
The next morning, I went to a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) event at the University of The Gambia with the buzz-word-heavy title “Reinforcing peace messages on political tolerance and non-violence towards free inclusive credible and peaceful elections in The Gambia.” The half-day event was held in a large hall with flickering florescent lights and attended by around 80 university students. After a series of presentations, the organizers asked participants to express their concerns and explain what they would do to prevent election violence.
As the mic was passed around, I was intrigued by the number of those who brought up tribalism. While no one spelled out what they meant by tribalism, their definitions were implicit in their comments. For instance, one young woman suggested that limiting the number of political parties to two would make it impossible for people to vote purely on ethnic lines. Another young man warned that tribalist speech, seemingly analogous to “hate speech,” could lead to a civil war “like Ivory Coast.” While the latter comments struck me as somewhat bizarre—Ivory Coast and The Gambia are very different countries with different histories—it was clear there was significant concern that tribalism in this election could lead to violence in the future.
Like the other experts I spoke to during my trip, the professorial Dr. Abdoulaye Saine was quick to impress that tribalism, or “ethnicity” as he preferred, is better imagined as a social construct as opposed to being seen as rooted in biological realities. We met on the veranda of La Parisienne, a restaurant with a French name that serves hamburgers and shawarma and is run by family with a connection to Lebanon. As a scholar of Gambian political history, in addition to other fields, who taught political science at Miami University in Ohio for decades, I was eager to ask about the role ethnicity was playing in the election.
“My mom is Fula, I have sisters who are Mandinka, yet my last name is Serer,” he said, using his own family to show how heterogeneity was the norm. Indeed, I offered back, around the capital and in major urban areas most families are mixed and kids grow up speaking Mandinka or Wolof. He pointed out that the dynamic is slightly different in rural areas, where many villages are constituted along ethno-linguistic lines. However, Saine continued in his didactic tone, it is not uncommon to have communities in rural areas that changed their ethnic identities over generations by speaking new languages and adopting new customs. Although ethnicity is often discussed in static terms, such identities are much more fluid in reality.
When I last spoke to Gambians about tribalism, in 2017, it seemed to me there was more consternation about its rise than actual discriminatory comments based on ethnicity. I remember being struck by the similarity to debates about race on my American college campus circa 2008, when accusations of racism appeared to be of more concern to some white students than whether or not something racist had actually happened. In both formulations, accusations were generating more concern than the original sins. As I was to find, however, fears that The Gambia was being more divided by tribe had become more widespread since 2017 and were being politicized in the lead up to the election.
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The atmosphere at Gambian political rallies reminded me of a state fair in the American Midwest. In the hours leading up to the political speeches, which do not start until late in the evening, thousands of people in official campaign tee-shirts gather, greet old friends, dance and snack on fried dough, juice and sweets. While some people are there for the politics, others seem more interested in an excuse for fun and to forget about their problems.
I entered the rapidly filling field where the NPP rally was starting and strolled over to two young men wearing shirts featuring Barrow’s round face. Mohammed Sowe and his friend Alpha Jallow spoke Pulaar, and after some joking about last names, I asked why they supported the NPP. They (somewhat mistakenly) gave Barrow sole credit for defeating Jammeh and the subsequent freedoms they’ve enjoyed for the last five years, and pointed to new roads and bridges that were completed under his tenure. Most important, Mohammed Sowe said, Barrow represented peace, “and without peace, you can’t have anything.”
After I finished recording the interview, another man named Ibrahima Sankare who had been standing nearby watching us walked over to tell me that if the UDP were to win, it would destroy the country. When I asked him to explain, he claimed the UDP represented only the Mandinkas, who would expel all other ethnic groups.
Throughout my time in The Gambia, I heard different versions of this story. Some people expressed fear the UDP would “retaliate” against Jammeh-era officials. Others said it would be “revanchist,” without specifying exactly what lost power the party would be re-winning. A number of people claimed a UDP government would expel all non-Mandinka. A smaller number stereotyped Mandinka as arrogant, violent and ethno-centric. No one acknowledged that saying “we don’t trust the Mandinka to take power because the Mandinka are ethno-centric” was in itself discriminatory toward Mandinka. These anti-UDP, and in some cases virulently anti-Mandinka, messages alluded to an imagined tribalist future—similar to the one alluded to at the UNDP event—where one ethnic group would control the government and plunge the country into civil war.
That dystopian vision is borne of the Mandinka’s changing place in Gambian society and recent history of politicization of ethnicity. At the time of independence, Mandinka speakers, who were then the largest group in The Gambia, were thought of as provincial, uncivilized and arrogant. The stereotypes faded somewhat under Jawara, who came to the presidency identifying as a provincial Mandinka, but who later leveraged growing support from urban power brokers against up-country challengers. While Jammeh promoted members of his extended family to important positions, he made sure to surround himself with people from all ethnic groups. However, during the (suppressed) campaign periods for presidential elections, Jammeh started to paint the UDP, the only real opposition to his rule, as an exclusively Mandinka party. In 2016, he made unusually vitriolic statements about burying Mandinka “nine feet deep” that earned the rebuke of the UN special adviser for prevention of genocide.
Since Jammeh fled in January 2017, The Gambia has entered a new media and political space and conversations about ethnicity and politics have become more widespread. During parliamentary elections in 2017, some communities became briefly divided along ethnic lines and experienced scuffles after election day. Meanwhile, newspaper articles and blog posts carrying allegations of tribalism spread widely and fed narratives on all sides. In 2019, a malicious WhatsApp voice message from a member of Jammeh’s party warning against a Mandinka takeover spread widely, resulting in the speaker’s arrest for hate speech.
As Tone Sommerfelt and Niklas Hultin, two Western scholars studying public discourse in The Gambia, argue in a 2019 article, many of those examples follow a pattern of what they call “anticipatory tribalism.” Instead of directly demeaning others or claiming the superiority of one ethnic group, people accuse others—often along ethnic lines—of having hidden agendas to take power and give privileges to certain ethnic groups at the expense of others. “It’s not necessarily ‘We are the Mandinka, we want to rule the world,’” Sommerfelt told me via Skype after the election, “but ‘You’re the Mandinka and you say you want to rule the world.’”
While such accusations were already circulating before the election, people in the NPP clearly played on the message as a part of their campaign. The most public example occurred a week before the election, when, at an NPP rally, the national president of the NPP, Lamin Bojang, insinuated that if the UDP were to take over, other ethnic groups would be expelled from the country. Similar rumors were also being spread online through WhatsApp groups and on Facebook, especially in the hours before and after NPP rallies. While tracking an direct messaging campaign all the way up to Barrow is difficult, it is clear that he and the NPP were all too happy to play into an already present narrative that demeaned their opponents as ethno-centric and potentially violent.
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While many of the rumors about the UDP are demonstrably false, they are nevertheless given public space to fester in the party’s vague approach to ethnicity. While the three UDP leaders I spoke with during my trip insisted the party is open to all and noted the gender and ethnic diversity of its upper ranks, they also readily admitted that the majority of UDP supporters identify as Mandinka. One, a self-described Mandinka, even attributed the UDP’s tenacity during Jammeh’s dictatorship to alleged intrinsic Mandinka stubbornness.
Although Darboe, the party founder and leader, avoids ethnic appeals, other leaders have explicitly courted the Mandinka vote on a handful of occasions. In early 2020, UDP deputy leader Aji Yam Secka urged rally-goers in Niani to empower their fellow Mandinkas to get rid of Barrow. The speech is often brought up by UDP detractors as alleged proof of the party’s inherently tribalist nature.
I met Omar Baba Jula, the young deputy mayor of Banjul, at the UDP headquarters in the city a few days before the election. Like many in the UDP, he came to the party through his family. After a passionate discussion about the campaign, I asked how the party responded to the accusation it is pro-Mandinka. He grew guarded, explaining that when asked a similar question on a popular radio show “I said I will not talk about tribalism, there is no sense about it.” When I pressed further, he dismissed Lamin Bojang’s comment about a UDP government expelling non-Mandinkas as “not realistic.”
“The Gambia does not exist without Wolof, Fula and Jola,” he pointed out. However, he later acknowledged that the party’s core supporters were Mandinka, and as Mandinkas are a majority in the country, he reasoned, they would therefore win the election.
While the UDP leadership generally eschews explicit pro-Mandinka statements, the same can’t be said for a vocal, mostly online fringe. Only around 25 percent of Gambians regularly used social media in 2021, but that is a 16 percent increase from the previous year. Of those who do, the majority who engage in partisan politics are UDP supporters. Over the last few years, there have been numerous WhatsApp messages and online radios shows in which party members encouraged a victimization complex based on 22 years of real repression, with rumors of discrimination against Mandinka. Social media warriors from both parties do battle in comments sections invoking arguments related to tribalism that are seen by all and feed into the fear a UDP government would favor Mandinka at the expense of other groups.
Offline, the UDP rallies during the 2021 election cycle dwarfed their competitors with a seemingly endless sea of the party’s yellow. The gatherings sometimes felt more like family parties—many supporters came to the party through relatives—than rallies for a political party. UDP supporters often show their deep veneration for Darboe, the founder and leader of the party, calling him “baba” (father), heroizing his significant personal sacrifices in the struggle against Yahya Jammeh, and gathering at his family compound. While the massive crowds and loyalty to the leader are praised as signs of strength by UDP supporters, outsiders often interpret them as threatening and cultish.
Ultimately, the UDP appeared unable to control the rhetoric coming from fringe supporters. Many of the most inflammatory videos and radios online are created by supporters without the party leadership’s approval. A cursory glance on Facebook shows that unofficial UDP pages have more followers than the official one. The party leadership generally avoids directly discipling radical elements because they depend on them for support. While fears of a tribalist future of division and conflict are clearly hyperbolic for now, the powerful narratives are drawing strength from the UDP’s failure to project inclusivity and distance itself from its most extreme members.
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While the NPP clearly exploited the perception of the UDP as a violent tribalist party, it was also virtue-signaling its own inclusivity. Before the election, I spoke with NPP deputy spokesperson Seedy Njie at State House, the seat of executive power. A former Jammeh loyalist who defended the former autocrat when I last interviewed him in 2017 by saying “human rights are bullshit,” Njie joined Barrow’s NPP when it was formed in 2017. His history of extreme loyalty to whoever sits in State House and crude but effective politicking reinforced my sense that our conversation was more revealing about how he wanted to come across than reality.
After a few softball questions about the election, I asked about tribalism. Everyone knew the UDP was a tribalist party that would bring violence, he said. “All responsible political parties must shun tribalism,” he added. “It is a recipe for a tribal conflict and this violence has no place in the modern world.” Afterward, he quickly turned to the NPP: “But thanks to President Barrow, we have an all-inclusive party… an option for progressive politics which shuns tribalism, sectionalism, regionalism and divisive politics.”
When asked for examples of the NPP’s inclusivity, Njie pointed to an agreement between the party and Yahya Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). The partnership puzzled foreign observers who could not understand why Barrow would court the supporters of the autocrat he had defeated—or why those supporters would join him. While Njie did not want to take credit, members of both parties confirmed he was among a small group of former APRC leaders who joined the NPP and established the alliance. Ultimately, Barrow pursued the coalition to broaden the base of his new party while APRC leaders and people like Njie signed on to stay close to power. However, the public messaging of the alliance—which borrowed from national transitional justice programs and appeared to have resonated with many voters—is that Barrow wanted to pursue “reconciliation” and avoid political grudges in the pursuit of peace.
Barrow himself is at the core of the NPP’s projection as a diverse and inclusive party. Like many Gambians, he comes from a mixed ethnic background: his mother identified as Fula and his father Mandinka. When giving speeches in English, he hunches his shoulders and speaks into his chest, appearing weak and vulnerable. However, when he speaks in Gambian languages, of which he knows four very well, he appears to be a completely different politician speaking with force and conviction.
When he came into power in 2017, Barrow publicly identified as Mandinka, Fula and Sarehule and has continued to lean into all of the identities on the campaign trial. He’s a chameleon,” Saine, the scholar, told me. “It allows an appeal and connection with the larger population… He can say ‘I am just your typical Gambian.’”
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When the polls opened at 8 a.m. on Saturday, December 4, Gambians had already been queuing for over an hour to drop their marbles in the bins of the candidates of their choice. The mood was festive at the polling stations I visited during the day. On the spot, marble counting began after the polls closed at 5 p.m. and continued into the next day. As the official results were announced constituency by constituency on Sunday, it became clear the NPP was going to win at a considerably higher margin than expected. When the final tally was released days later, the NPP won 53 percent of the vote with the UDP in second place with 27 percent.
The jubilations, as they are referred to in The Gambia, began on Sunday evening. At Westfield junction, a series of roundabouts connecting the main arteries of the city, vans festooned with NPP stickers and heaving with supporters ripped around the corner and disgorged their passengers. A crowd wearing mostly grey NPP tee-shirts with slogans like “We Make Gambia Great Again” and “We are stronger together,” gathered as motorcyclists popped wheelies and young men took turns jogging down the street waving a large Gambian flag. When I asked revelers what they were happy about, more than a few told me in Pulaar that “foreigners will be welcomed here” and “we will continue to have peace.” I noticed a few young men ripping down yellow UDP flags and burning them.
Meanwhile, the situation at Darboe’s compound grew increasingly tense as angry UDP supporters gathered, shocked by the results. Darboe calmed the crowd by announcing that he, along with two other presidential candidates, rejected the initial results of the election. He implored party supporters to be peaceful and let the leaders deal with the situation. The crowd dissipated, but many returned the next day and, in the afternoon, the police fired teargas. The people I spoke with in the crowd an hour after the incident insisted the election had been stolen and that the UDP could not have lost because “we are the majority.”
The UDP’s refusal to concede—the case went to the Supreme Court, where it was thrown out on a technicality—has been more fodder for propagandists on both sides. The belief the election was stolen resonates among many UDP supporters while NPP supporters blame the UDP for bringing post-election disorder. The most extreme versions of these narratives fester online. In the days after the election, a WhatsApp message purportedly from a UDP supporter appeared in which he referenced Rwanda and called on people to make the country ungovernable. Amid the ensuing national outrage, Darboe publicly rejected the WhatsApp message and encouraged the police to arrest whoever was responsible.
Debates about the role of identity in politics, the spread of social media, the fracturing of established political parties and rejecting valid election results are not uniquely Gambian phenomena. Conversations around tribalism will continue to evolve in relation to international trends and events as well as Gambian developments. Many of the experts I spoke with privately expressed concern about the tenor of the conversation in The Gambia and the potential for further polarization.
However, not everything is black and white. While the country struggles with many of the same issues with which others around the world are grappling, future Gambian politicians looking at the December 2021 elections would do well to note that Gambian voters do not reward candidates associated with narrow particularistic interests. Instead, voters in free and fair national elections are far more interested in a candidate who they believe embraces a pan-ethnic Gambian identity that celebrates and reflects the country in its entirety.
 Many people close to those events suggest the only reason Gambia’s fractious opposition parties agreed to unite around Barrow is that Darboe had been imprisoned by Jammeh at the time and Barrow represented the weakest and least politically threatening of potential candidates.
 Scholars avoid the word “tribal” and instead use “ethnicity” or “ethno-linguistic,” as “tribe” is often associated with static primordial identities, whereas ethnicity as a social construct is considered more malleable.
 The UDP was the biggest member of the coalition that defeated Yahya Jammeh at the polls.
 Anticipation tribalism: accusatory politics in the ‘New Gambia.’ The Journal of Modern African Studies
 A month after the official alliance was made public in September 2021, Yahya Jammeh announced that he had not approved and was instead throwing his weight behind Gambia Democratic Congress candidate Mama Kandeh.
 Instead of paper ballots, Gambia uses a system according to which voters drop marbles in the bins of their preferred candidates. It is thought to eliminate opportunities for fraud and erase potential confusion for illiterate voters who may have a hard time deciphering a voting card.
Top photo: A crowd wearing mostly grey NPP tee-shirts gathered as motorcyclists popped wheelies and young men took turns jogging down the street waving a large Gambian flag