- Jan 21 2017
Gambia is in crisis currently with Yahya Jammeh refusing to step down as President after election results were announced. He suffered a shock defeat to Adama Burrow. Gambia is a tiny country in West Africa with a population of 1.8 million which is popular for its beaches. It is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. The major religions of the country are Islam and Christianity. It attained independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1965. Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh took over power through a military coup in 1994. In 1996, he won elections in a contest where three major political parties were barred from contesting. In total, he has won four “multi-party elections” (much criticised).
On December 1 of last year after the results were announced, Jammeh, to everyone’s surprise, conceded defeat and agreed to step down. However, after one week, on December 9, Jammeh took to air waves and reversed his decision saying that he would not be stepping down. His “complaint” was that the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) was not all that independent but under foreign influence. Jammeh carried on bantering that many of his supporters were denied their right to vote, providing bogus reasons by alleging misinformation, intimidation and systematic exclusion of some of his polling agents, particularly in the Central River Region.
The Economic Committee of Western African States (ECOWAS) tried unsuccessfully to find a solution to the crisis. A delegation of four Presidents from ECOWAS even went to Gambia to convince the losing President from stepping down. This delegation also included Ghana’s ex President John Dramani Mahanama, who graciously conceded defeat in Ghana’s presidential elections. Unfortunately, they were not successful in their attempts to convince Jammeh to step down.
If at all Jammeh had any complaints about the manner in which the elections were conducted or the results, he should have taken the proper course to do it – which was to do it through the Supreme Court Panel. By the way, the Supreme Court Panel currently does not exist due to politicisation of the Judiciary which has led to a gradual breakdown of the rule of the law. Full credit for this achievement would have to go to Jammeh himself. Jammeh is also reputed to be one of the world’s most eccentric leaders. He believes that homosexuality threatens human existence. He decided to withdraw Gambia’s membership from the Commonwealth when they began to push for reforms. In 2007, he claimed that he could cure AIDS with herbs, prayer and a banana.
The African Union (AU) described Jammeh’s actions as an unconstitutional change of government, the definition which allows it to suspend a country’s membership. Its Peace and Security Council met on December 13, 2016 and although it condemned Jammeh’s attempt to reverse the election results, it stopped short of suspending it. Not that it would have had any effect on Jammeh. For he seems to be bothered only about his own clinging to power. Why would it bother him that his country is stripped of its AU membership? He has also tried various tactics to consolidate his position. He summoned various religious heads to the state house and tried to persuade them to promote “peace and reconciliation.” But his plan boomeranged when the 67 clerics from the Gambia Supreme Islamic Council and Gambia Christian Council unanimously told him to step down in the interests of peace.
Over 20 organisations including the Gambia Chamber of Commerce, the Bar, the Medical Practicioner’s Association and a raft of labour Unions have all asked Jammeh to quit and move on. The president of the ECOWAS commission has said that a military option was on the table. On December 20 of last year, Jammeh made a TV appearance and derailed everyone including the ECOWAS, the United Nations (UN), the commonwealth and the European Union (EU) and also challenged the ECOWAS to intervene. Apart from leaving Commonwealth, under Gammeh, Gambia quit the ICC.
Coming to Adama Barrow, the opposition candidate who won a surprising victory in this elections, he is a property developer who has won this elections with 45 per cent of the vote. Barrow’s promises include free basic education, affordable higher education and affordable health care even in rural Gambia. He has also said that he would put an end to the imprisonment of government critics which has been the norm under Jammeh’s rule. During his younger days, he was employed as a sales manager in a gas company when he decided to move to London to study and save up funds to start his own firm. Even after building up his business, he still works for 12-14 hours a day. Currently he is in Senegal. It is a tragic fact that he was not even able to attend his son’s funeral ceremony who died because of a dog bite on January 15, 2017.
Gambia’s intelligence officers have arrested several opposition sympathizers and have shut down three independent radio stations. Meanwhile, Jammeh announced a 90 day emergency. Nigeria has reportedly deployed a warship in the coastline of Gambia to put pressure on the Gambian President to step down. Jammeh’s aides including the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, trade, information, environment and tourism & culture have resigned. There are also reports that Jammeh has assembled mercenaries from countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and Casamanca in Senegal for a possible showdown with ECOWAS. Gambia’s entire armed forces is made up of only 2,500 people. The Gambian army chief has declared support for Gammeh. The elite section of the army is fiercely loyal to Jammeh. But the other sections of the army might not be so loyal.
On January 19, Jammeh refused to step down. Hence Senegal has entered Gambia. It is important that Jammeh should be made to step down since he has not done so voluntarily. Meanwhile, Barrow was sworn in Gambia’s embassy in Senegal. Barrow also has called on the military to remain loyal and has also warned that any soldiers possessing firearms without his order would be considered rebels. The United Nations Security Council has pledged support for Adama Barrow and called upon Jammeh to respect the election mandate. The Gambian military will do well to back Adama Barrow instead of Jammeh which they have done until now. With the West African countries set to intervene and ensure that Jammeh steps down (Senegal, Ghana, Togo and Mali have assured that they would provide the required military support), it would be a matter of time before the Gambian military gets defeated.
As for the African continent too, if the President of a small country like Gambia can ensure that he can get away by refusing to step down, it would send out a wrong message to the other countries and their leaders too might undergo ‘a change of mind’. That is already an issue in many countries like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burkina Faso. The situation in Gambia is eerily similar to the Ivory Coast situation in 2010 when France had to attack the Presidential Palace in order to make Laurent Gbagbo step down after he refused to quit following the announcement of election results. One hopes that better sense prevails upon the mind of Jammeh. If it does not, it is the duty of the African and the international community to see to that.
This commentary was first published in ModernDiplomacy