Gambia: Opinion - Gambians Use Their Marbles to Vote for Stability

Adama Barrow, President of the Republic of Gambia, addresses a high-level United Nations General Assembly plenary meeting on peacebuilding and sustaining peace in 2018.
6 December 2021

Gambia has reelected President Adama Barrow by an unexpectedly wide margin, despite the incumbent's broken promises. In a vote conducted by marbles, the nation has passed the democracy test, writes Claus Stäcker.

The marbles have been cast: In Gambia's unique voting system, marbles instead of paper ballots are counted for each candidate. The marble rolls down a small pipe into a cylindrical container marked with a picture of the candidate's face. Each marble triggers a little bell, which notifies election observers of a successful vote. Smuggled marbles would be spotted immediately, and the marble voting system is trusted.

This unusual voting technique was introduced in 1965 to assist illiterate citizens -- and to stop their votes from being manipulated. In 2016, Gambians used this system to force dictator Yahya Jammeh from office, 22 years after he seized power in a military coup.

After that watershed moment in Gambia's history, all eyes were on the West African nation to see if it could successfully conduct another election and pass the acid test for a young democracy.

Voters choose stability

Positive takeaways first: Jammeh, the fallen dictatorwho tried to pull strings from his exile in Equatorial Guinea, saw no resurgence of support. The poll was peaceful, and there is little reason to doubt the election victory of incumbent Adama Barrow.

Gambia's political elite may make fun of him, calling into question Barrow's poise, his level of education, and even his principles. Still, a considerable chunk of Gambia's population, especially in rural regions, seem to identify with Barrow's rise from humble beginnings.

Barrow represents a picture of stability for voters, especially less-educated ones. As Gambia's current president, Barrow was the best-known of the six presidential candidates. His mixed ethnic background promises peace and continuity over change.

Most voters have looked past Barrow's broken promises. In 2017, he said he wanted to remain an interim president. His goal was building a new constitution, initiating administrative and legal reforms, and helping Gambia come to terms withJammeh's bloody dictatorship through a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.

Barrow also sought to modernize the economy and create thousands of jobs for young Gambians -- many of whom, out of desperation, undertake dangerous journeys to Europe.

The underestimated incumbent

Barrow remains accountable for most of those unfulfilled promises. But his opponents, especially his former Vice-President Ousainou Darboe, seemed overconfident of their abilities to steer voters away from Barrow. They underestimated him.

Barrow managed to establish a base with his newly founded National People's Party. He forged an alliance with Jammeh's former party, the APRC. Though this at first seemed a bizarre move, it evidently paid dividends. His campaign team, according to observers, was better-oiled than those of his opponents. It also seems Barrow had more resources to fund the popular move of giving small gifts to voters.

That the losers now blame their defeat on the election commission, which has often been incompetent in the past, is hardly surprising. But the accusations avoid the real issue, which is that young democracies in transition often see voters choose a leader for stability -- regardless of his or her shortcomings.

Can Barrow make good on his second chance?

Those failings may become Barrow's heaviest burdens. Can he keep his ambitious election promises -- for instance, creating a universal health coverage scheme?

Will his questionable pact with Jammeh's former party come under the microscope? Can he finally deliver a new constitution that will strength democratic institutions? Will he tolerate Gambia's lively media landscape, and the biting criticism of his office and personality that come with it? Most importantly, can Barrow really stem the exodus of young Gambians and breathe life into the country's economy?

After blowing his first chance, Barrow now has to contend with a global pandemic that has nullified the small progress his presidency had made. It is doubtful that he can take full advantage of his second term as president. But, as the marbles showed, there is little doubt that Gambians believe Barrow deserves a second chance.

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