Gambians surprised the world in 2016 by voting President Yahya Jammeh out of office after 22 years. This historic defeat and the subsequent transition of power to current President Adama Barrow was made possible by high turnout and activism among Gambian youth. As the next presidential election approaches on December 4, civil society organizations such as Gambia Participates—a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy—are working hard again to make youth voices heard.
“In 2016 when I started the #GambiaParticipate campaign, there was this high rate of voter apathy among young folks and even adults because there was a belief that there was not going to be change,” said Marr Nyang, founder and executive director of Gambia Participates, a youth civil society organization that aims to educate and register new voters, promote transparency, and create new tools for Gambian voters. “Jammeh actually threatened that he was going to be in power for a billion years, and people believed whether they vote or not, he’s going to still cling to power. So basically, that was the rationale of me starting Gambia Participates, educating people and basically debunking that misinformation.”
After spending the years since the historic transition in 2016 working on constitutional reform and public input on the country’s budget, Gambia Participates has mobilized to prepare for the 2021 presidential election. The organization created voter education billboards encouraging Gambians to vote and educational videos in regional languages Wollof, Fula, and Mandinka, as well as in English, explaining how to cast a ballot using the Gambia’s unique voting system, which involves placing a marble in a different multicolored drum for each candidate.
Inspired by this voting system, Gambia Participates also worked with developers to create an election app named Marble Gambia, available on Google and Apple Store. The app includes official election results, as well as background about each of the presidential candidates, information about polling places and how to vote, and a digital “I Voted” sticker that voters can share on social media to encourage others to participate.
“The 2021 election is an important test for the Gambia’s democratic transition after decades of authoritarian rule,” said Mamby Diouf, program officer and regional expert at NED. “Gambia Participates is a positive example of a youth civil society organization using technology to educate and mobilize voters during this crucial election.”
To continue to ensure the election is free and fair, Gambia Participates is partnering with the University of the Gambia, the Gambia Bar Association, and the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) to train and deploy election observers. The team already includes 65 long-term domestic election observers who are reporting on the pre-election environment and campaigns. On election day, 570 poll observers will be stationed in communities across the country and Gambia Participates will run an election situation room with 30 data entry clerks and a team of election experts.
“The impact that we want to have on this election is to make sure it is a credible one,” Nyang said. “That’s why we are trying as much as possible to have observers in all the regions and as many polling stations as possible, but also to do parallel vote tabulation. With our deployed observer we would be able to compare whether what the electoral commission announces is corresponding to the information that we receive from polling stations because election results are counted on the spot, which is transparent.”
Gambia Participates has also worked to promote transparency in the electoral process. In 2021, the organization filed a lawsuit challenging the mayor of Banjul, the Gambia’s capital city, who was issuing documents to city residents to allow them to register to vote without a birth certificate. Gambia Participates pointed out that the country’s Elections Act reserves this power only for village and district leaders, and worried that this action by partisan elected officials would lead to claims of bias and harm public confidence in the election results. In July, Gambia Participates won their case when the High Court in Banjul ruled that mayors are not allowed to attest residency under the law.
“The whole thing is about making so there are credible elections, and there is also fair play,” Nyang said. “This is part of strengthening democracy and rule of law and, most importantly, so that the separation of powers is visibly seen being implemented by both government and the political parties.”
Marr Nyang is a 2021 Hurford Youth Fellow with the World Movement for Democracy. Read more about his research here.