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The coalition that broke Jammeh’s rule: 3 important lessons for Zimbabwe’s opposition

By Zivai Mhetu

The recent upset victory of an Adama Barrow led coalition in Gambia has given new impetus to calls for a coalition in Zimbabwe. Just like Gambia under Yahya Jammeh, Zimbabwe has suffered greatly under a repressive regime that has been in power for decades. However, the political contexts of the two countries are not identical hence it is crucial to apply lessons learnt from that country in a way that takes this fact into consideration.

Adama Barrow, 51, who spent his early years tackling shoplifters at Argos's store on London's Holloway Road, staged a shock victory over President Yahya Jammeh, who had vowed to rule "for a billion years if necessary".
Adama Barrow, 51, who spent his early years tackling shoplifters at Argos’s store on London’s Holloway Road, staged a shock victory over President Yahya Jammeh, who had vowed to rule “for a billion years if necessary”.

That being said, the Zimbabwean opposition can learn quite a lot from the coalition that ended Jammeh’s 22 year rule.

We are headed for a watershed election in 2018 and talk of an opposition coalition to unseat Zanu-PF is taking centre stage; the Gambian election and the coalition that won it provide a rare, appropriate and recent case study that can be applied, albeit with caution since our contexts are not identical, to the Zimbabwean situation.

The first lesson that can be learnt from the Gambian coalition is that election rather than negotiation solved the contentious issue of who was to lead it.  Adama Barrow who romped to victory against Gambian strongman Yahya Jammeh was elected to stand as the coalition’s presidential candidate at an opposition convention where each party in the coalition sent 70 delegates, ten from each of the seven administrative regions of Gambia.  

While I am not saying that the Zimbabwean opposition should take this same exact route, it is something that is worth mulling over considering that it is very unlikely that opposition leaders will come to an agreement on who should lead the opposition amongst themselves.

Lesson two has to do with the importance of completely divorcing the coalition’s candidate from party politics. After his victory in an election to stand as the coalition’s presidential candidate, Adama Barrows resigned from the country’s main opposition outfit, the United Democratic Party (UDP). But he did not end there; he went further and filed his nomination as an independent candidate as opposed to filing it under his party.

This effectively made him a candidate that stood for all parties in the coalition and all their members and supporters. It prevented him from being viewed as a UDP candidate who had support from other parties, something that is not quite the same as being viewed as a non-aligned candidate in an election where not being viewed along party lines was crucial.

Put more simply, the lesson here is that it is crucial for a coalition candidate to identify with all parties in the coalition; in Gambia Barrows thought the best way to do this was to resign from his own party and run as an independent candidate.

In Zimbabwe if ever a coalition comes into being that same route can be followed or other ways can be found to ensure that the coalition candidate is not viewed as a party candidate as opposed to being a coalition candidate.   

It is not always the case that those who fail to join a coalition will prevent it from emerging victorious. That is lesson number three.

In Gambia, only one out of nine opposition parties did not join the coalition. But this had little effect on the election result.

This lesson, however, has to be applied with a lot of caution to the Zimbabwean context because there are parties whose absence from a coalition will certainly lead to its defeat and those that are so small that whether or not they are part of the coalition is of zero consequence. 

Notwithstanding this, it is always best to have a mindset geared towards involving everyone when building a coalition because at times it is not so easy to measure the exact level of support a coalition will lose by not engaging any party in the opposition.

In conclusion it is safe to say that the Gambian experience is rich with lessons and experiences that are worth exploring in the Zimbabwean context in the event that talks to have an opposition coalition in the 2018 elections amount to something.

Zivai Mhetu, University of Zimbabwe student from the Political Science and Administrative Studies Department.