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Debate in politics: Why President Barrow and four others missed Gambia’s first presidential debate

History was made in Gambia as Gambians and the rest of the world witnessed her first presidential debate. The six candidates vying for the position of the office of the next president of the West African country were expected to sell their visions and goals to the 2.1 million people of Gambia. All eyes are on the seat of the presidency and there is a rising interest on whether the power of incumbency will play a great role in the retention of Adama Barrow or perhaps, one of the other candidates might emerge. So, last week, all eyes were set to see the outcome of the debate organized by the Committee for Political Debates (CPD).

But then, there was a sudden boycott. This came unexpectedly and changed the tune of the music on the lips of Gambians. The highly anticipated maiden presidential debate was given another twist by the absence of the incumbent president, Barrow. Not just Barrow, the main opposition leader who is also a lawyer, Ousainou Darboe was absent as well.

The absence was worsened when the organizers did not receive an official communique on why he was not present after he had earlier promised to attend. The pull-out from the debate by Barrow was suspected to have triggered other candidates to do the same.  Mama Kandeh of Gambia Democratic Congress and Abdoulie Jammeh of National Unity Party were also visibly absent as they also failed the occasion.

Left to have the historic debate were only 2 candidates – Halifa Sallah of Peoples Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS) and Essa Mbaye Faal who is an independent candidate.

For a lot of critics, the boycott of the debate seemed to share a semblance of what happened during Nigeria’s presidential election in 2019 where President Muhammadu Buhari failed to show up. In that process, Abubakar Atiku of People’s democratic Party (PDP) had to withdraw. Surprisingly, despite not showing up for the presidential debate, Buhari still went on to become Nigeria’s president.

Plethora of questions have lined up on the lips of Gambians as they analyze the debate and the boycott. A lot are asking if it is as a result of lack of ideas on how to pull a large percentage of the electorate to himself. For some, it might be a move to showcase the power of incumbency if he still goes ahead to win the election. For others, they are skeptical of the way Barrow is wielding his political power which may slightly be perceived as power drunk.

This view was built up after Barrow who stepped into power in 2016 after Jammeh promised to step down after three years. He did not just refuse to step down but extended his tenure from three to five years and still went ahead to contest for another election. This move has divided the views of a lot of Gambians and only the December 4th presidential election will embolden the strongest views.

Interestingly, there seem to be another budding school of thoughts who seem to be more interested in Faal and Sallah who showed up for the debate and sold their goals to the populace. This gesture of gracing or boycotting the debate has sent a strong signal to electorates and may in turn affect the outcome of the general election. The turnout of the December 4 election is highly anticipated and will define a lot of structures and strategies for the democracy of Gambia as a nation.

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