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The Election Nobody Cared About

Posted: 11/30/11 10:36 AM ET

You may have heard, but you probably didn't, that last week a tiny West African country you may know of, but probably don't, had an election.

The Gambia, a tiny sliver of land less than 50 km wide with a population a little over 1.5 million, re-elected His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhajie Doctor Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Naasiru Deen, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of The Gambia to a fourth-consecutive term as president -- the one word seemingly absent from his title. And no, that's not a made up title. Well, it is in a sense.

To understand why The Gambia is able to keep electing a seemingly super-qualified individual to the presidency, you have to understand a bit about Gambia (permit me to drop the "The"). It doesn't have much by way of resources. Its biggest crop is peanuts, but grocery stores sell Dutch peanut butter. Geopolitically, it stays pretty quiet, keeping mostly to itself. Minus some pretty beaches, and a river with hippos and baboons, there aren't all that many non-altruistic reasons why people pay attention to Gambia.

Therein lies the problem. In a country you can't really see on a map (that doesn't really offer an incentive to find it), you have a situation where a man who claims to have found a cure for AIDS, for which he provides treatment only on Thursdays, is able to not only run, but win presidential elections. (On Fridays and Saturdays he cures asthma. You can read his own statement on it all here).

Why care? If there's nothing we can get out of the country and he's doing no harm to his neighbours (in fact, Jammeh was the first African leader to recognize the Libyan Transitional National Council and disown Gaddafi), why bother with a brazen 46-year-old democratic dictator willing to taunt in the lead up to the election, "Do I look like a loser?"

The answer is the Gambian people. They deserve better.

Gambians are wonderful people. They are kind, gentle, generous and above all, decent. They are, however, incredibly poor; some of the poorest in all of Africa. And since 1994 they have been stuck, and for the foreseeable future will continue to be stuck, with a man who takes them for granted and tries to, at times, play them for fools. This, combined with his unwillingness to permit true political, press and judicial freedoms, has entrenched his rule.

The result is that last week he secured 72% of the vote in an election boycotted by the West African regional group ECOWAS, of which Gambia is a member. In a statement, ECOWAS claimed the country's political environment was not free and fair and that there was an "opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation."

When confronted with these allegations by the BBC, the president, who only wears flowing white robes, responded, "The allegations are all lies."

Let me clarify. I'm not advocating for a Gambian Spring. President Jammeh is still somehow incredibly popular. The country is adorned with images congratulating him on saving the people when he gained power in a military coup in 1994. In one of the markets you can purchase fabric adorned with his picture, calling him "the ever bright light" and "our saviour." There are numerous posters throughout the country wishing him happy birthday, even when it's not his birthday.

I don't say this to poke fun at a cult of personality and megalomania. I honestly believe that a large number of Gambians love their president. But he's cheating them. They deserve more than the subsidized bread his bakery chain sells during Ramadan or biscuits he throws at them as he whizzes by in his super-sized motorcade.

President Jammeh is not immune to criticism. When in 2008 he threatened to "cut off the head" of gays in the country, he faced international scorn. But that has since died down and homosexual activity remains illegal. With no real reason to keep up the pressure on this man, it invariably recedes.

The election and farce of Gambia's democracy should be the real reasons.

ECOWAS took a bold first step in its denunciation of the elections. Other countries should follow suit and demand that President Jammeh permit a truly open political space, safeguarded by the rule of law under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary -- no more arbitrary dismissals of judges.

Until the Gambian people are treated like citizens and not children waiting to be bought, the self-proclaimed "Smiling Coast of Africa" will give very few reasons to smile.