World View: Gambia’s dictator has second thoughts
Jammeh refuses to step down, but his departure is a necessity for the country
A man walks on a ripped electoral poster of Gambia’s defeated president Yahya Jammeh. Photograph: Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images
It looked and sounded too good to be true. It was. Yahya Jammeh, the dictator who has ruled Gambia for 22 years and once told a reporter that he would rule for “a billion years if Allah willed”, had agreed, to the surprise of all, on December 1st to stand down after his election defeat.
He would, he said, peacefully hand over the reins of power to his democratic opponent.
“I will never cheat or dispute the elections, because this is the most transparent, rig-proof election in the whole world,” he declared in his TV concession speech .
Word has it that he was reluctant to go, but was prevailed on by his closest advisers and so conceded to an opposition that he had called “evil vermin” and who he threatened to “bury . . . 9ft deep”.
There was jubilation and dancing in the streets of the capital Banjul.
Last Friday, however, Jammeh announced he had found “serious and unacceptable abnormalities” in the election and demanded it be entirely rerun.
He was not now minded to concede, banned all protests and ordered the country’s 1,000-strong army on to the streets – its commander, who had pledged support to the winner, the opposition United Democratic Party’s Adama Barrow, now reaffirmed his support for Jammeh. The man, he said, who paid his salary.
Soldiers took over the headquarters of the electoral commission, appointed by him but now branded a tool of foreign influence and, to put a veneer of legality on the U-turn, the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction has filed a challenge to the “annulled” election at the supreme court.
The court has not enough judges to consider the case – Jammeh fired four of its members only months ago.
Opposition supporters wonder if the volte face by both men, effectively, they say, a coup d’etat, could have to do with talk that they should face charges for multiple human rights abuses.
Jammeh has presided over a vicious regime, a personal fiefdom, which has ruled through extra-judicial killings, jailings, torture and the disappearing of political opponents, journalists and gay people.
In the last three years he has also quit the Commonwealth, declared an Islamic republic and pulled his country out of the International Criminal Court which is accused by some of the continent’s most notorious dictators of having a colonialist bias against African leaders.
His revocation of the election has been widely condemned – by, among others, the UN Security Council, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union – and leaders of Ecowas with Mohammed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, travelled to Banjul this week to plead unsuccessfully with him to accept the result.
The regional organisations are now likely to impose economic sanctions.
A military intervention is possible although observers suggest it is unlikely. UN.
Troops did intervene alongside France to oust Ivory Coast’s then-president Laurent Gbagbo after he used the constitutional court to overturn the 2010 election victory of Alassane Ouattara.
But they were already in the country, upholding the election process.
Many Gambians hope that Gambia’s neighbour Senegal, which surrounds it – all Gambia’s imports come through Senegal – will step in.
It intervened in Gambia in 1981 to quell a coup attempt but its relations with the Jammeh regime have been frosty.
Asked whether military intervention was an option in Gambia if mediation failed, Chambas said: “It may not be necessary. Let’s cross that bridge when we get there.”
Opponents of the current government suspect that Jammeh’s refusal to stand down may be a negotiating ploy to block attempts to try him and secure a promise of asylum in a friendly state nearby.
Yet in reality there are fewer such states these days – Gadafy’s Libya, for example, is no more.
The man elected as president, Adama Barrow, a property developer who once worked as a security guard in Argos in London, is refusing to be drawn on prosecution and has spoken of his admiration for Nelson Mandela and the latter’s spirit of forgiveness.
His party’s campaign, however, was entirely devoted “to once and for all take this soulless dictator out”.
The tiny republic – population two million with an average age of 20 – is between a rock and a hard place.
Its economy has suffered under Jammeh’s mismanagement, and many of the young have already fled, preferring the perils of the illegal crossing of the Mediterranean to life under Jammeh – as many as seven per cent of migrants taking the boast are Gambian.
Gambians are desperate not to see a continuation of dictatorship. His departure is an economic as well as political necessity.