The events in The Gambia last week, surely, are a feast for thought. Yahya Jammeh, an eccentric, half-insane soldier who seized power 22 years ago, held an election. It was a free election, the first surprise. Then he lost it. No surprise there.
However, he didn’t, in Uganda fashion, arrest the winner, opposition candidate Adama Barrow, or muddle up the vote. In less than 18 hours after the polls closed, Jammeh had called the election commissioner to tell him he was conceding defeat, and to let Barrow know.
In the evening, he went on TV and conceded. Perhaps knowing how deep the distrust of him was, he called Adama and put him on the phone speaker on air.
It was totally unexpected, because ahead of the vote Jammeh had arrested, tortured, and even killed opposition figures. And, borrowing a trick popular in Uganda and increasingly in Africa, he shut down the Internet (CIPESA, a leading centre for research on ICT policies in Africa, cites revelations at the recent Forum for Internet Freedom in Africa 2016 that this year, Uganda Internet shutdowns could have cost the country $26 million).
Again, like some people who will remain unnamed in Uganda said of Museveni, Jammeh – who once said he could rule up for up to one billion years – said he had had an encounter with God, who had told him he was destined to win.
So when the vote-counting went freely, Gambians started smelling something unusual.
Even after it emerged that Jammeh had made some noises about accepting the result, it was only after the Internet shutdown was lifted that it became clear that he had embraced the will of the people.
There are a lot of as yet uncorroborated stories about other factors that were behind this unusual, and celebration-worthy, turn of conduct by Jammeh. Reports say the army, told him they would not accept a rigged vote.
If he won, fine, they said. But if he lost, he goes home.
Jammeh has been involved in a trade dispute with Senegal, and his already wobbly economy was hurting.
The Gambia, as one can see from the map, is a think strip of territory that cuts through Senegal from the Atlantic in much the same way Lake Kyoga does in northeast Uganda.
The shortest routes between north and south Senegal, therefore, are through The Gambia.
However, in February Gambia increased tariffs at two main ferry crossings.
The Senegalese decided to take the long way around The Gambia on a national highway. With its puny economy, the loss of business and blow to The Gambia was massive.
Word also has it that a bit of Senegalese pressure, and a menacing look from Nigeria, where President Muhammadu Buhari himself became the first Besigye to win an election in the country, persuaded Jammeh that the regional atmosphere wasn’t conducive to election rigging.
But all this might be taking away credit from Jammeh. He might actually have had a political conversion on the road to Damascus.
In any event, two remarkable things happened. The Gambia became the first country in the world where the lifting of an Internet shutdown was a sign that a strongman was going to accept election defeat.
Secondly, Jammeh became the first president in Africa of recent times who came to power in a coup, who accepted an election defeat, conceded, and folded his robes peacefully and went home.