by Rob Harding
2016 continues to provide a torrent of horrible, depressing news. On the first of December, the opposition coalition candidate Adama Barrow beat the incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, by 43-39%, ending Jammeh’s 22 year control of the country. On the eve of the election peaceful celebrations went on throughout the Gambia, while Mr Jammeh conceded in a phone call to Mr Barrow with as much grace as one might expect from a democratic leader to his successor. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay graceful for long.
His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Abdul-Aziz Awal Jemus Junkung Nammeh Naasiru Deen Babili Mansa, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of the Gambia (Mr Jammeh’s full title, although he has discarded several elements and added several others) was a classic despot. Brought to power in a military coup in 1994, he promptly suspended the constitution, sealed the borders and implemented curfews. A devout Muslim, Jammeh has allegedly claimed that it is the will of God that he lead the Gambia, and officially changed the country’s name to The Islamic Republic of The Gambia. Elections were routinely rigged, and while Mr Jammeh’s government did ban female genital mutilation, and also child marriages on the grounds of their ‘having no place in Islam or modern society’, he also introduced a raft of anti-LGBT+ legislation, blustering that he would behead those LGBT+ people who didn’t flee the country. In a speech to the United Nations he called homosexuality ‘antihuman’ and ‘a threat to human existence’, referring to homosexuals as ‘vermin.’ He also claims to be able to cure HIV/AIDS and asthma with ‘secret medicinal herb ingredients.’
If you’re wondering why all my sources are Western media – who are not above exaggerating stories of eccentric African dictators – it’s because press freedoms in the Gambia were atrocious under Jammeh’s rule and many Gambian news sites are currently offline. Journalists were threatened, censored and killed or ‘disappeared’, with the Gambia listed among the 10 worst ‘backsliders’ in press freedom. Government forces are alleged to have killed students, imprisoned dissidents, potentially massacred migrants from other countries (The Gambia is entirely surrounded by Senegal, but it’s alleged that Jammeh ordered the massacring of 44 Ghanaians in 20014). His government also reintroduced the death penalty, and took steps to pull The Gambia out of the International Criminal Court.
In the run-up to the most recent election, the BBC reported that the internet and international phone calls had been shut off in the Gambia, with demonstrations banned and several opposition leaders arrested, a move that may have helped the opposition more than it hindered them. Adama Barrow, an estate agent and former security guard who worked in London, was a younger and more charismatic candidate who appealed to the electorate. Shortly afterwards, Yahya ‘I will rule for a billion years if Allah wills’ Jammeh was defeated, and the new Coalition government announced that he was to be detained over fears that he would flee to Senegal and attempt to start a revolution. He was also to be prosecuted by representatives of the seven parties of the coalition. Mr Jammeh stated that he planned to go and start a farm in the south of the country.
While initially accepting the election result, Mr Jammeh rapidly changed his tune. With international media praising the apparently peaceful transition of power, he changed his mind, sent troops to occupy the country’s Electoral Commission, whose site was shut down and has only recently come back online, and declared that he would not step down. He denounced the election results, demanded a new vote and lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court to overturn the result.
He’s still there, defying calls to step down from dozens of sources including the East African power bloc ECOWAS, leaders of other nearby governments and international bodies. While Mr Jammeh has claimed that the question will be settled ‘internally and peacefully’, demanding a ‘God-fearing and independent electoral commission’, it’s hard to believe that this is anything else than a naked power-grab. With the extremely high turnout in the election and the evident swing in the popular opinion against Mr Jammeh, it is depressingly likely that this action will be met with violent resistance from Gambians. The military, still evidently loyal to Mr Jammeh, have been seen placing sandbags and defensive positions in Banjul.
There are various ways this situation can end. Senegal, with a vested interest in stability in the tiny country, has been vocal in calling for Mr Jammeh’s resignation, and their military have already intervened during military coups in the Gambia in the past, most recently in 1981. Should Mr Jammeh give them a reason, his government will find few allies internationally to prevent them from deposing him by force.
Regardless, a depressing turn of events. In a year where the largest democratic nations in the world have seen blunt-force referendums misused to push populist agendas and parasitic pseudo-fascist con artists hijacking bizarre electoral mechanics, the peaceful, democratic removal of a 22-year dictatorship would have been a welcome bright spot. Alas, all now rests on Mr Jammeh’s willingness to accept the will of his people. Historically, this has not been reliable.