The Real Reason Gambia’s President Isn’t Stepping Down
First he conceded defeat. Then he challenged the legitimacy of the vote. What explains the flip-flop that is threatening the stability of this tiny African country?
BANJUL, Gambia — One of the gentler techniques that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has used to stay in power for the last 22 years is sacking his staff members seemingly at random, before any of them could conspire against him. From cabinet ministers to diplomats to army chiefs, it wasn’t unusual to serve just months or even weeks in office before getting the bullet — hopefully in the metaphorical sense.
But as Jammeh tries to wiggle out of a resounding defeat in this month’s presidential election, the habit of keeping his government in a permanent state of reshuffle has come back to haunt him. Two weeks after he conceded defeat to Adama Barrow, a property developer who once worked as a security guard in Britain, the president had a sudden change of heart, vowing to challenge the election result before the country’s Supreme Court. But Jammeh had sacked so many Supreme Court justices over the last year that the body is legally unable to hear the case unless he appoints four new justices. And as the Gambia Bar Association pointed out in a Dec. 12 statement: “Any Supreme Court empanelled by the outgoing President Jammeh for the purpose of hearing his election petition would be fundamentally tainted.”
Of course, from Jammeh’s perspective, if one decision qualifies as haunting, it’s his choice to hold a free election at all, much less to concede defeat in it. That has inadvertently made him a case study in the difference between dictatorial power and political legitimacy — and how the accrual of the former can blind one to lack of the latter.
The Gambia Bar Association is just one of a growing chorus of voices, from the U.S. government to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to the U.N. Security Council, demanding that Jammeh abide by his initial promise to step aside. But the Gambian president doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. A troubleshooting delegation headed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was denied permission to land in the Gambian capital, Banjul, on Saturday, although an expanded delegation that includes Sirleaf, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, and Ghana’s outgoing president, John Mahama, who also lost elections this month and is going without a fuss, visited Tuesday with the aim of persuading Jammeh to quit.
They were whisked through a capital that is calm but extremely tense. Soldiers patrol the streets, but given how many of them celebrated Jammeh’s defeat, nobody knows quite whose side they are on. The president is thought to be holed up in the State House with his most ardent supporters while Barrow plays the statesman, politely urging Jammeh to do the right thing but also complaining that there is nobody in Gambia to protect him should his predecessor send troops to arrest him. For that same reason, one suspects, the crowds that tore down Jammeh’s posters after his defeat have not been back out on the streets to demonstrate. Or not yet anyway.
“It is an extremely dangerous situation,” said Jim Wormington, a researcher focusing on Africa at Human Rights Watch. “If the opposition feel the diplomatic approaches aren’t working, the chances of bloodshed are extremely high. It is important for the international community to spell out that there will be consequences if there is a crackdown.”
For many, the most baffling riddle is not why Jammeh would decide to cling to power. That, after all, is standard practice for any dictator, never mind one who famously vowed to rule Gambia for “1 billion years” if Allah decreed it. Rather, it is why he chose to do so after going on television to graciously admit defeat. “I will never cheat or dispute the elections, because this is the most transparent, rig-proof elections in the whole world,” he said in his televised concession speech on Dec. 2.
The answer, according to diplomats in Banjul, appears to be that Jammeh made the mistake of allowing the elections to be transparent. Convinced that he was about to secure another landslide victory — he won 72 percent of the vote in the 2011 election, which ECOWAS condemned as “unfair” due to the level of official intimidation — he abandoned the usual despot’s trick of insisting that the votes be tallied in central counting houses. Instead, he let local polling stations announce the results live on the spot.
When they did, Barrow was declared the winner with 43.3 percent of the vote compared with the incumbent’s 39.6 percent. Taken by surprise — and advised, reportedly by some of his army chiefs, that it was all over — Jammeh bought time by playing the generous loser, all the while plotting his next move.
Exactly what that will be, nobody knows. This, after all, is a man who is said to consult fortunetellers on important matters of state. But although much of the country and most of the world is against him, the fear is that Jammeh may be able to cling on by brute force. Gambia has just 1.9 million inhabitants, with a standing army of only around 1,000 troops. Even in the unlikely event that those troops united against the president, they could still face a tough fight against his inner core of presidential guardsmen, who are better trained, better equipped, and handpicked for political and tribal loyalty. And in any case, the head of the army, Gen. Ousman Badjie, has reaffirmed his loyalty to Jammeh after briefly pledging his support to Barrow.
One reason he and other officers may be sticking by Jammeh is fear of ending up in the dock alongside the president if he is prosecuted for past human rights abuses. Barrow has so far been quiet on this question, telling Foreign Policy before his victory that “we will have to wait and see” about a criminal prosecution against Jammeh and stressing that his priority is rebuilding the nation. But last week, Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, a senior politician in Barrow’s coalition, told the Guardian that Jammeh would face trial within the year. There are whispers that this may have been what prompted Jammeh to change his mind about stepping down, although the notion that he would have been surprised by the opposition’s desire to settle scores after decades of persecution is difficult to accept.
By stoking fears that he will not go peacefully, Jammeh may be hoping to bully his way into an offer of amnesty or possibly refuge in a third country. And as distasteful as it is, this option may be the most likely to prevent Gambia from slipping into chaos. “It’s important that he is offered a placement outside Gambia to cool off,” said Alex Vines, the head of the Africa program at Chatham House, a think tank in London. “The question would be who would receive Jammeh — old friends like [Libyan dictator Muammar al-] Qaddafi are not there anymore to receive him.”
One option, diplomats say, might be Saudi Arabia, which already hosts ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and tends historically to look kindly on fellow Muslim leaders in trouble, even when it’s largely of their own making. Alternatively, another African nation might take him, perhaps on the condition that he stand trial in a regional or African Union-endorsed court should prosecutors find enough evidence for a case. That was the fate of former Chadian leader Hissène Habré, who fled to Senegal in 1990 after being overthrown. Accused of killing more than 40,000 people, he was later put under house arrest and then sentenced to life in prison by a court backed by the African Union, which asked Senegal to try Habré “on behalf of Africa.”
For all his faults, Jammeh is unlikely to be deemed a big enough or nasty enough fish for the International Criminal Court to fry. If he unleashes mayhem in the coming weeks as he attempts to cling to power, however, that could very well change.
“Personally, for the sake of the country I would be happy to see Jammeh go to a third country, but he may fear that what happened with Habré will happen to him,” said Alieu Ceesay, a Britain-based Gambian dissident. “Right now, it seems, he may just take the country to complete chaos.”
Top image: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images