Why a Political Crisis in this small African Country May Have Big Global Implications

On December 1, Gambians went to the polls in a highly anticipated and contested presidential election. For the first time in his 22 year long rule, President Yahya Jammeh faced an organized and unified opposition, along with a vocal public calling for change. When the results came back, change is what the majority of Gambians voted for. To the surprise of many observers, Jammeh conceded the election on national television and congratulated President-Elect Adama Barrow on his victory. BBC News called the results and Jammeh’s concession, “one of the biggest election upsets West Africa has ever seen.” For a moment, it appeared that Jammeh’s dictatorial rule would come to an end with a whimper, rather than the bang most people feared.

Unfortunately, that hope was short lived.

On December 9, Jammeh changed his mind about stepping aside. Citing election irregularities in one district – a charge the electoral commission denies – Jammeh called the election results invalid and announced he annulled the results pending a new vote. He also filed a petition with the Supreme Court – a seven person panel appointed entirely by Jammeh from neighboring countries – to formally contest the results. Since then, troops have been deployed to the political and economic capitals of Banjul and Serekunda, security forces took over the electoral commission’s headquarters, and several radio stations have been shut down. Backtracking on earlier comments, the Army Chief has now publicly sided with Jammeh even as several other members of government have called for him to step down.

With time running out – the current presidential term ends in January 18 – Jammeh seems determined to do anything to retain power. Attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to negotiate a resolution to the crisis have thus far failed. The stalemate has led to ECOWAS proposing a military intervention led by Senegal if Jammeh does not step down by January 19. As tensions continue to rise in the region, it’s unclear if the crisis can be resolved without bloodshed.

UN Dispatch spoke with Jeffrey Smith, director of Vanguard Africa Movement, about the political crisis and where things stand in Gambia as well as what could happen next.

Gambia

Gambia

Now that President Jammeh has made clear he won’t be leaving power easily, what is the current situation in the country?

The situation remains tense and Gambians across the country are rightfully on edge, but the fact remains that Gambians voted on December 1 for change and for new leadership. They voted, resoundingly and bravely, against two decades tyranny and dictatorship. None of Jammeh’s desperate antics will change that reality. He is the outgoing president, and come January 19, Adama Barrow will be enter office as president of the Gambia.

The Supreme Court, often seen as a political ally of Jammeh’s, just ruled it could not hear his petition to invalidate the election results until May. What impact is this likely to have on the political crisis?

The Supreme Court case lacked credibility from the very outset for a host of reasons, not least of which Jammeh was appointing the same judges who would hear his petition– none of them, mind you, are actually Gambian. Not a single Gambian, in fact, sits on the Supreme Court; rather ironic given that Jammeh has repeatedly denounced so-called “foreign interference” and “meddling” in the Gambia.

[But] he could use it to try to cling to power in the sense that he can seek other options. For instance, yesterday the National Assembly convened to “debate” extending his term in power (i.e. committed treason). Jammeh is really grasping at straws here and his options very limited.

Speaking of allies, how have the domestic political lines shifted since the election? Who does Jammeh have in his corner and who is backing President-Election Adama Barrow?

Currently, Jammeh is as isolated as he has ever been. There have been mass defections from the government, including top foreign diplomats and the Gambian ambassador to the US. Nearly every conceivable professional organization in the Gambia, from medical professionals to the country’s press union and university lecturers have all demanded that Jammeh step down and respect the will of the Gambian people as expressed on December 1. Currently, Jammeh has only a handful of people within the security forces, namely those in the National Intelligence Agency, who still support him.

How are ordinary Gambians reacting to the political stalemate?

I think Gambians ought to be commended for the peaceful manner in which they have dealt with this increasingly tense situation, and in spite of Jammeh’s many provocations. Overall, Gambians are simply ready to move on. They are ready to move on from the Jammeh dictatorship and begin to heal from the collective trauma that they have suffered since July 1994.

What options does the international community have to get Jammeh to respect the election results?

I think the international community, from ECOWAS to the AU, the UN and western powers, have admirably stood in lockstep with the Gambian people, making it clear to Jammeh that he must step down and hand over power. ECOWAS leadership in particular has been tremendously helpful, including the fact that they have publicly kept the military option on the table. Unfortunately, when dealing with an unhinged and often erratic individual like Jammeh, force is the only language they tend to understand. To be honest, I think leaders in ECOWAS have long been fed up with Jammeh’s antics. He really has been an embarrassment for a region that is otherwise performing tremendously well in terms of advancing democracy; the latest example being Ghana.

With Jammeh’s term ending on January 18, what should we expect next? What are the major concerns going forward?

One major concern that I do not think has received enough attention is the rising threat of ethnic violence in the country. Jammeh, being from the minority Jola community, has surrounded himself with fellow Jolas and has consistently tried to incite violence against the country’s majority Mandinka. Before the election, Jammeh threatened to “bury them nine feet deep,” referring to them as “vermin” and “ants,” rhetoric that conjures memories of Rwanda in 1994. I’m not saying that genocide, or ethnic cleansing, is imminent in the Gambia. But this is an issue we need to be mindful of, as it is something that Jammeh has routinely and cavalierly stoked. It may indeed be his last card to play in his unjust and illegal attempt to cling to power.

Go Deeper: Last year, Jeffrey Smith appeared on the Global Dispatches podcast to discuss the situation in Gambia, its political history and how instability in this tiny country has global implications. 

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