That Gambian election. And will SA get another reprieve?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Gambians go to the polls to elect a president on 1 December, another sham probably. Yahya Jammeh, the country’s longstanding leader, would sleep quite well on election night certainly. That is, even as the opposition presents a united front this time around. And then there is the much-awaited South African rating decision by SPGlobalRatings on 2 December. After the other two major rating agencies held their fire last week, it is not all too certain how the more hawkish rater would move.

Jammeh to swagger on
President Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Re-Orientation and Construction (APRC) party has won the majority of votes in all elections since the first held under his supervision in 1996, two years after he rose to power in a military coup. On 30 October, at least seven Gambian opposition parties announced they would be presenting a single presidential candidate. Adama Barrow, the annointed opposition flagbearer is no match for Mr Jammeh, however, who goes into this latest polls after 22 years at the helm. It is all but certain he will win re-election. Rivals have either fled the country or been sufficiently stifled. Others are in jail. Were Ousainou Darboe of the main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP) to be contesting, the election might actually make some pretensions to being competitive. Mr Darboe has complained severally in the past about the unfair electoral system in The Gambia. When Mr Darboe first ran in 1996, he won 36 percent of the vote, second to Mr Jammeh’s 56 percent. Mr Darboe did not do as well in subsequent attempts, even as he led varied coalitions and alliances at each turn. In July, he was sent to jail with eighteen others, after Gambian authorities deemed unlawful, protests he led calling for electoral reforms and Mr Jammeh to step down. At least, he got a trial. Critics of the Jammeh administration have been known to just disappear. Never mind that a recent military coup that took place in his absence failed. Such is his tight grip on the reins. Still, some unity on the opposition’s part is laudable. It matters little for the polls’ largely determined outcome surely. But it portends what is possible.

Tough talk, feeble action
Last week, Fitch, a credit rating agency, kept its one-notch above sub-investment grade rating for South Africa unchanged, but cut the outlook to negative. Moody’s, another major rating agency, also kept its two-notch above junk rating unchanged. The authorities’ success has much to do with the goodwill finance minister Pravin Gordhan enjoys with market participants, business leaders and indeed the rating agencies themselves. It is doubtful that but for his doggedness and stellar reputation the country’s rating would not now be in junk territory. Still, there are fears the inevitable is simply being delayed. The toxic political environment is likely to remain for as long as Jacob Zuma, the country’s president, continues in office. This is because the opposition – and increasingly, members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party – is determined to continue to irritate him. And his myriad baggage gives them ample ammunition. Still, even the slightest credit must be given to President Zuma: it is his adminstration after all. In fact, the South African experience might become a classic case of how to manage rating agencies. When there are concerted efforts by business leaders and a rating assessment is seen as perhaps the only way to rein in an otherwise errant government, some consideration on their part is possible. That has to be the explanation. For South Africa has breached almost all the rules in the book and yet managed to keep its investment-grade status. Still, even as Moody’s and Fitch talked tough but acted feebly in the end, it is not a sure thing that SPGlobalRatings would do the same. And the latter certainly did not have any qualms throwing the state power utility, Eskom, further down into junk territory last week.

Besides, growth is tepid and may be so for a while. True, authorities are making efforts to spur it. But the structural reforms needed have been challenging to bring about. And at almost each turn, every little progress is almost soon diminished by some pushback from entrenched stakeholders. Already, the recently announced miniumum wage, which is meant to reduce incessant labour actions, has been criticized by a major labour union. And all too frequent political bickering between the major political parties and within the ruling one make for an unpleasant cocktail. Corruption is also rife. And populism may win the day, as the struggling ultra-leftist opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), potentially takes on a more militant approach. In any case, there is probably widespread frustration amongst the political elite. Many are astonished Mr Zuma has managed to survive this long in office, amid numerous allegations of corruption and public misdemeanour. While the South African judiciary has represented itself well, it has become all too writ large how vulnerable other political institutions are, or could be, at the hands of a deft political operator like Mr Zuma. Except for the judiciary, they have all become weaker under him certainly. It is now not unreasonable to think that they would probably be even more so the longer he stays in office. That Mr Gordhan is probably one of the few wedges against that eventuality, for the treasury at least, speaks to how the sands may shift all too quickly once he is out of the way. And considering how vulnerable his position remains, it may be a little bit optimistic to think Mr Gordhan would succeed in fending off his avaricious colleagues for much longer.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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