By Yusef Taylor and Omar Camara
Dispute: According to the Ministry of Justice and the current Chairperson of The Gambia’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the tenure of the current IEC Chairperson, Mr Alieu Momarr Njai, has been extended from 2023 to 2025. Civil society advocates have asserted that the IEC Chairperson’s term expired before the 2023 Councillor Elections. If true, this will have far-reaching consequences for Gambian Elections presided over by the current IEC Chairperson after his term allegedly expired.
This Explainer co-authored by Gainako Online News and FactCheck Centre The Gambia contains claims and counterclaims from relevant stakeholders including the Minister of Justice, the IEC Chairperson, Civil Society Advocates, News on the Standard Newspapers probe on the subject and a timeline of the IEC Chairperson’s appointment.
Our reporter hand-delivered a letter to the Ministry of Public Service, Administrative Reforms and Policy on Monday 24th April 2023 requesting for the letters of appointment of the current IEC Chairperson but did not get any response by the date of publication. When received the information will be processed and duly published.
Justice Minister: Speaking on West Coast Radio’s Coffee Time on 12th April 2023, Justice Minister, Hon Dawda A Jallow, revealed that the Government’s “records show that the current Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission was first appointed in 2006 briefly, but was re-appointed in 2011 for a seven-year term which according to Mr [Coach Pa Samba] Jow expired in 2018. But he got another extension. So, if the term is seven years, that extension is due to expire in 2025”.
IEC Chairperson: The IEC has remained tight-lipped about the IEC Chairperson’s tenure. The IEC Chairperson is quoted twice in Standard Newspaper when he spoke about his terms. First in 2020 and again in 2023. More recently the Standard published another story on April 2023 headlined “IEC Chairman Says his Term Now Expires in 2025”. The story quotes the IEC Chairperson saying: “We were appointed for a period of seven years and my current term will end in 2025.”
This was a turnaround from only three years back. When Standard reminded him about his comments “that his term will end this April, Njai said: “That was a mistake. I was appointed in April 2016 as chairman for a period of seven years”. The reporters continued to probe and question the IEC Chair that his term had already expired and in response, Njai argued: “No. It is renewable. It is renewable.” When asked if it was renewed the Standard reports that “Chairman Njai tersely said: “Call me later.”
DUGA DC and R2K: According to two Diaspora based Civil Society Organisations, Right to Know Gambia and the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists (DUGA) they “have irrefutable evidence that Mr Njai was first appointed in 2006, as a Commissioner. He resigned in 2007 and went into politics, as acting Mayor of KMC”. This statement is in line with the Minister of Justice’s statements on West Coast Radio and means that Alieu Momarr Njie has served one initial term lasting for less than a year.
Advocates note that the IEC Chairperson “was reappointed in 2011 and rose to the apex of the Commission as Chairperson on 7 April 2016” and argue that “the tenure system cannot be seen in the number of years alone, but the fact that the tenure system speaks to two terms, which starts from the first appointment in 2006”.
In their statement published widely in the media, the Advocates enthused that the IEC Chair’s “second stint at the IEC was a second tenure, which commenced in 2011 and should have lapsed in 2018”.
Standard Newspaper: The IEC Chairperson had previously spoken to the Standard back in 2020 about his term. However, his statements back in 2020 are very much at odds with his 2023 statement. A publication dated August 2020 and headlined “IEC Chairman Reveals his Contract Ends in 2023” quotes the IEC Chairperson as saying his “7 years will expire in 2023,” while showing his appointment letter dated April 2016 to the Standards Lamin Njie. The IEC Chair now claims that his statements in 2020 were a mistake.
Provision 42 (2) of The Gambia’s 1997 Constitution mandates that “the members of the Commission shall be a Chairperson and four other members”. Provision 42 (4) which doesn’t distinguish a Commissioner and a Chairperson adds that members of the Commission “may be re-appointed for one further term”.
According to provision 42, subsection 4 of The Gambia’s 1997 Constitution, “the members of the Commission shall be appointed for a period of seven years and may be re-appointed for one further term”.
Given the significance of the topic, it must be stated that only the Supreme Court can provide a legally binding interpretation of the legality of the current IEC Chairperson’s Term.
Provision 42 subsection 4 of The Gambia’s 1997 Constitution is clear that Commissioners can only serve 2 terms. However, the current IEC Chairperson first served as Commissioner back in 2006 after which he vacated office in 2007. Commissioner Njai took up his second term in 2011 which should have expired in 2018, however, he has continued to serve as the IEC Chairperson from 2018 to date which critics argue counts as his third term.
Provision 42, subsection 4 of The Gambia’s 1997 Constitution also mandates that Commissioners can only serve a maximum of two 7-year terms which comes to a maximum tenure of 14 years. However, to serve 14 years is the maximum allowable years any Commissioner can serve, occupying a position for less than a year and vacating that position for approximately four years may be considered as a term served.
Going by this and the 1997 Constitution, the IEC Chairperson may only serve one additional seven-year term, limiting his total tenure to just over seven years. Considering that the IEC Chairperson occupied the role of Commissioner twice from 2006 to 2007 and from 2011 to date in total he has served 13 years.
Timeline of IEC Chairperson’s Tenure
- First Term from 2006 to 2007 – less than a year.
- Second Term from 2011 to 2018 – 7 years.
- Third Term from 2018 to date (2023) – 5 years.
Conclusion: Based on the dictates of The Gambian Constitution, claims and counter claims it’s clear to note that there is uncertainty surrounding the legality of the current term of the IEC Chairperson since 2018. Given the far-reaching consequences this could have on the Gambia’s elections, the current IEC Chairperson’s term may have been renewed against the dictates of The Gambia’s 1997 Constitution.