A Reflection on the Peaceful Transition of Power: Why Inauguration Day Was More Important Than Most Realized

“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The oath of office. Thirty-five words that draw millions (well… sometimes millions) of people to Washington D.C. every four years. January 20th, 2017 was a very emotional day, and certainly one that will go down in United States history for many reasons — especially because nobody, not even the president himself, imagined or could have imagined that day would ever come. Some Americans were elated; others, terrified. Despite the mixed reactions, all Americans on that day were bequeathed a new commander-in-chief.

However, it was not the inauguration of a billionaire real estate developer turned reality TV star that was the most thought provoking aspect of the day, nor was it the fact that he was a precedent breaking individual defying a myriad of democratic norms during the transition. But it was that the next of the long line of peaceful transitions of power in United States history was officially a success. Americans seem to forget about the record setting 200 plus years of administrations taking a bow and stepping off the stage, sometimes even to let the new blood reverse everything they had accomplished in their time in office. Pundits and politicians alike mention it on occasion, but nobody takes the time to ponder how big of an accomplishment it really is. It’s taken for granted.

A major reason that such a pivotal achievement is glossed over in political discourse is because of its normalcy. Humorously, a quote from the animated show Futurama best explains this phenomenon: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

Every four or eight years, the metaphorical keys to the White House are handed off to the next administration without a drop of blood. We do not think about the truly beautiful or complicated processes that drives our world until they break down in front of our very eyes, and that is exactly what happened in early December 2016 in a country far away from America, yet relevant to this discussion.

Not Your Typical Juxtaposition

While the eyes of the world were focused on the upcoming Trump Administration and the tumultuous transition, The Islamic Republic of The Gambia (the Gambia) had a presidential election on December 1st, 2016.

The African country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, but it formed a “loose confederation” with Senegal, an adjacent country, in the early 1980s that broke down just a couple years later. Sir Dauda Jawara, the Gambia’s leader from the country’s inception, was ousted in a military coup d’état in 1994 by 29-year-old Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh who has since been the president. The over two-decade rule by President Jammeh was very characteristic of a military man who came to power in a coup; everything that one would expect from more publicized dictators on the international stage. Freedom House, an organization that ranks countries according to their relatively objective version of “freedom,” ranks the Gambia among the least free countries in the world. The Gambia is sandwiched between Yemen and Swaziland in their “Freedom in the World 2016” rankings, hardly an accomplishment. Even though Jammeh had virtually complete control over his country, he still had elections, and to nobody’s surprise he continued winning using tactics like jailing political opposition and making it prohibitively difficult to oppose him with burdensome regulations and exorbitant registration fees.

December 1st came, and the people of the Gambia went out to cast their ballots like usual. But the results when the votes were tallied up left the country and the world flabbergasted. Gambian businessman Adama Barrow upset President Jammeh by tens of thousands of votes in a stunning rebuke of a dictator who had aggressively suppressed his opposition.

The transition period in the Gambia began, but it was so hectic that it made the Trump transition look seamless. At first there was reason for optimism. Jammeh announced on national television that he would concede the election and assist Barrow in the transition, but ultimately take a “backseat.” This concession by an African dictator so used to winning stunned observers, even the Gambia’s head of the electoral commission, Alieu Momarr Njai, who said, “The president is magnanimous enough to accept that he had lost the election… It’s very rare that this present situation now, in Africa, that this happens.” However, this concessionary sentiment in Jammeh did not last long because the president made another statement just over a week later calling for a new election because of “abnormalities” that could only be fixed with a new vote. This resulted in a month of fear and uncertainty in the country of almost two million.

Jammeh was condemned by the international community, and Barrow eventually fled to Senegal for his own safety. The dictator continued refusing to cede power, even declaring a state of emergency in his country that banned “acts of disobedience and acts intended to disturb public order.” Foreign troops with the permission of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to invade the Gambia in support of Barrow who is the legitimate president in their eyes. While this was happening, Adama Barrow was inaugurated at the Gambian Embassy in Senegal, and the troops soon stopped advancing to give time for Jammeh to decide to end the dispute diplomatically, which eventually happened. On January 21st, Yahya Jammeh left the Gambia for Equatorial Guinea with millions of dollars and some luxury cars, handing the country over to the President Adama Barrow to rule.

Reflection is an important aspect of improvement, and it’s an activity that everybody should participate in following such a divisive election. It would help the discourse in this country if everybody took a step back and admired the things that went right instead of just complaining about the things that went wrong. Even after over a year of the most bitter campaigning the country has seen in the modern era, there was a peaceful transition of power that did not get nearly enough appreciation. Looking at the situation in the Gambia made me thankful for living in a country where I do not have to worry about the conflict following the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. The United Nations reports that over 45,000 people have fled the Gambia for Senegal in the interregnum period because of the uncertainty surrounding Jammeh and the possibility of violence. There was and still is a lot of anxiety on the left regarding the actions of President Trump, but nobody needs to be worried about a war on United States soil or any kind of violent domestic strife on or even close to the level witnessed in the small African country. An unquantifiable number of things can be said when it pertains to flaws in the American system, but watching the Gambia go through this period of chaos has granted me a new appreciation for this democracy, and I hope one day the Gambia will be able to achieve what we have.

Matthew Chakov

About Matthew Chakov

Matthew Chakov is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs pursuing a BA in CLEG (Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government). He is interested in politics and currently interns at a lobbying firm in downtown D.C. He is a Staff Writer at The World Mind in the Government and Public Policy column.