The race to state house may still be at least 12 long months away but the political space in The Gambia is already crowded thanks to a teeming number of politicians taking to the field ahead of schedule.The next election cycle in Africa’s smallest country begins with presidential polls on December 4th 2021, an event which would test how far the current government under Adama Barrow has come with his electoral promises of five years ago.
In sporting terms, the future contestants including Barrow himself would have been called out for jumping the gun after several false starts on the tracks.
At least eight parties have been registered in The Gambia over the past three years, bringing the total number of political organisations to a whopping 16.
Even the Independent Electoral Commission is slowly warming up to the electoral process with the registration of voters yet to begin as the dilemma over a rejected draft constitution hangs on the political landscape like a stubborn mist hard to dispel.
But that notwithstanding, many in The Gambia are now so used to the constant stream of election rhetoric that by now they regard the campaign energies of politicians as a familiar dress rehearsal before December 4, 2021.
As part of the rules of the game election campaigning and filibustering are not supposed to start until a few months before the next vote which Gambians have been exercising by marbles literally dropped in drums for 60 years.
The politicians its seems will not be deterred.
President Barrow who shocked the world with his unexpected election victory over long-term strongman Yahya Jammeh in 2016 seemed to have ripped this rule book apart for a posture that has all to do with canvassing for votes in the nook and crane of the country.
Barrow’s National People’s Party formed barely a year ago is already assuming the role of a campaign machinery tasked with the unmistakable agenda of ensuring his return to State House by the popular will even if this involves rehearsing for the game well ahead of time.
In the space of one month, the Gambian leader keen on preparing the grounds for succeeding himself in the highest office in the land has toured the country twice, reminding people how far he has come with his 2016 election campaign promise to build roads, bridges and power facilities where they used to be sparse if not non-existent.
A politically-motivated tour in late November has been quickly followed by another under the guise of a constitutionally mandated Meet the People’s Tour which was introduced by the country’s founding president Sir Dawda Jawara to keep abreast with the yearnings of both urban and rural Gambians.
In the course of these tours Barrow and NPP lieutenants have been enumerating their work in an all-too obvious bid to improve their stock in the eyes of prospective voters.
“Vote Barrow and NPP in 2021” read a slogan during one of his meetings in a town in the North Bank Region.
Slogans like this have been ubiquitous in successive tours by Barrow, rendering it difficult if not impossible to discredit criticism of them as electioneering acts even though they should be sounding out the pulse of communities about their immediate needs for utilities such as potable water, electricity and healthcare.
Barrow sees himself as a proverbial bus driver taking Gambians on a roller-coaster ride to national development but his detractors see his rhetoric as providing a convenient excuse for them to go on their own campaign trail if their resources permit this.
However, The Point, one of Gambia’s more regular daily newspapers has issued a warning to the incumbent to be wary of people who could scupper his chances.
“As a bus driver, you should be watchful of your conductors otherwise your bus will be filled with unscrupulous passengers who will not meet their obligations to sustain the operation of the bus. You will end up disappointed when you reach Destination 2021 only to realise that your conductors did not do a good job” it writes in a recent editorial.
Barrow and his NPP will face a stern test from the United Democratic Party, a political organisation from which he became estranged after falling out with its leader Ousainou Darboe in 2018.
The lawyer who lost four previous elections to former president Jammeh and was in jail when Barrow’s electoral coup came good in 2016, has been reelected as party leader in the UDP’s latest congress.
The rhetoric coming out of that three-day interactive congress has been bellicose and belligerent towards Barrow and his nascent party who are derided as “a naive bunch of political novices ripe for electoral slaughter” by the biggest political movement in town.
Since the fall of Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, the UDP have more often than not gloated about filling the void as Gambia’s biggest party.
During its congress, nothing else seemed to matter more than the 2021 election as speaker after speaker spoke extensively about how a UDP victory over Barrow’s NPP is a foregone conclusion.
Using various platforms, its members have been active on social media, talking up their party’s chances in the next elections while castigating Barrow as a betrayer who should be chided for crossing swords with his now estranged political godfather, Darboe.
The 72-year old Darboe has made no secret of his wish not only to run for president but to win it.
“It’s already a heated race for the presidency even before the day is here and the contenders are jumping the gun” says a political commentator who wishes to remain anonymous.
“This points to the hallmarks of a very tight contest with the outcome far from being a foregone conclusion….what is forgone about it is the tension, the uncertainty and the high stakes” he adds matter-of-factly.
As time inches slowly towards the start to Gambia’s electoral timetable, Gambians of nearly every political hue have deemed it appropriate to flaunt T-shirts emblazoned with the smiling portraits of President Barrow, Mr Darboe and others.
With all these political goings-on, the race for political supremacy may well be truly underway.