Anarchy looms in Gambia as hand-over date nears

President Yahya Jammeh has reiterated on Tuesday that he won’t hand over power to President-elect Adama Barrow despite growing international pressure. He would be regarded as a ‘rebel leader’ after 18 January if he refuses to hand over power, says opposition. The Gambia edges to constitutional crisis as the presidential hand-over date of 19 January looms, writes Ken Kamara in an exclusive report for The African Courier.

On 1 December, presidential and legislative elections were held in The Gambia. It was the fifth general polls since President Yahya Jammeh came to power through a military coup in 1994 and subsequently transformed into a civilian leader.

Not much attention was paid to the election in the international media as Jammeh and his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, that have won all previous elections, were expected to triumph. But on 2 December the chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Alieu Momarr Njai, announced to a stunned nation that the candidate of the 7-party opposition coalition Adama Barrow won the presidency and Jammeh surprised his compatriots and the international community when he promptly went on air to accept defeat and congratulate the president-elect in a live TV broadcast.

President-elect Adama Barrow has announced that the preparations for his inauguration were in top gear / Photo: ABCO

Gambians burst into celebrations with youths parading the streets holding high the photo of their newly-elected president.

Analysts were still at work to explain why Jammeh finally gave in after 22 years in power when on 9 December, Jammeh addressed Gambians in a live TV broadcast to denounce the elections, alleging that his supporters were not allowed to vote in some areas and other irregularities. He therefore announced his rejection of the result of the election and called for new polls.

Gambians have lost their fear

This time around the former military ruler got more than he bargained for. For a man who had ruled his country for more than two decades with fear, Jammeh was used to always having his way. But not anymore. The promise of freedom had taken the fears out of Gambians and civil society groups promptly rejected Jammeh’s new position.

“Everybody is now speaking out,” said Ebrima Sall, a Gambian senior social scientist. “They have overcome the fear that was there and they are all calling upon him to leave and accept the verdict. They know the majority wants him to leave. Otherwise, he will be even more isolated internally, let alone internationally.”

The election commission said that the election results stands and opposition parties also told him to reverse himself again and that they would not participate in any new elections.

President Yahya Jammeh (middle) at the meeting with the West African leaders. From left: President Buhari of Nigeria, President Sirleaf of Liberia, Presidents Koroma of Sierra Leone and out-going President Mahama of Ghana / © SR-NAN

The international community is united on its stand that Jammeh should respect the will of the Gambian people. At the behest of Senegal, a non-permanent member of the body, the UN Security convened on the issue and voted unanimously to call on Jammeh to hand over power to his successor at the end of its term.

The United Nations Special Representative for West Africa, Dr Mohammed Ibn Chambas, has even declared that Jammeh would be “strongly sanctioned” if he sought to remain in power after his mandate ends next month.

A delegation of West African leaders, including  Presidents Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia), John Mahama (Ghana) and Ernest Bai Koroma (Sierra Leone), visited Jammeh on 13 December but failed to convince the Gambian president to change his mind.

The African Union has also told the embattled leader to respect the wish of the Gambian people as represented by the result of the 1 December election.

There is event talk of military intervention if Jammeh refuses to step down. Marcel de Souza, head of the ECOWAS commission, has said that sending troops to The Gambia was “a conceivable solution,” an indication that regional leaders are determined to see him go.

“I am not a coward”

A defiant Gambian president has reiterated that he won’t hand over power despite growing international pressure. Jammeh’s pledge to stay was broadcast on state television on Tuesday, 20 December and it indicated a hardening of the veteran president’s position. It came a day after President-elect Barrow said he was ready to take office on January 18 – the day Jammeh’s mandate ends.

“I am not a coward. My right cannot be intimidated and violated. This is my position,” Jammeh said. He also condemned ECOWAS for what he termed “meddling” in The Gambia’s affairs.

The political crisis in The Gambia will be settled internally and peacefully, Jammeh said, adding he would maintain his position of challenging the election result.

Why the Supreme Court cannot resolve crisis

A constitutional crisis now looms in the small West African nation. Jammeh has petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to cancel the polls and order new ones.

However, the court is at the moment not properly constituted. It currently has only one member, the country’s chief justice, Emmanuel Fagbenle, a Nigerian national, out of a 7-person panel. For the court to sit, six new members of the court have to be appointed.

The opposition coalition has made it clear that it would not accept Jammeh appointing new judges to hear a case in which he is an interested party. And Gambian lawyers say Jammeh exerts strong influence over the Supreme Court, which has not held a session for a year and a half.

From all indications, the Supreme Court would not likely be able to hear the case and make a decision before 18 January. What happens then?

“After the 2011 polls, the losing candidate, Ousainou Darboe, filed a petition to challenge the result but Jammeh was sworn before it had been heard,” writes Gambian journalist and long-time BBC correspondent Sheriff Bojang.

“So there is a precedent for Barrow to be sworn in while Mr Jammeh is still going to court but it is unlikely that the strongman would agree.”

Can Buhari make the difference

The heads of state of the regional ECOWAS have named a mediation committee headed by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari with Ghana President John Dramani Mahama as deputy, to engage Jammeh diplomatically and find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The 50th ordinary session of the regional body ended in Nigeria’s capital Abuja last Saturday with all the eleven presidents present stating they will attend the 19 January inauguration of Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow.

Supporters of the newly-elected president, Adama Barrow, kick a poster of the defeated President Yahya Jammeh in Serekunda a day after the incumbent conceded defeat. Analysts are now blaming some opposition leaders for calling for the trial of Jammeh and for not controlling their supporters, factors they say were responsible for Jammeh’s U-turn on the election / AFP

Meanwhile the president-elect, who has repeatedly called on Jammeh to rescind his decision, has announced that the preparations for his inauguration were in top gear. 

The opposition coalition on whose platform he contested and won the election has said that President Jammeh would effectively become a “rebel leader” if he failed to leave office at the end of his mandate on 18 January.

“He will lose constitutional legitimacy and any president who loses constitutional legitimacy becomes a rebel,” said Halifa Sallah, a spokesman for the coalition.

Most analysts are optimistic that Buhari with his age and experience and his rumoured closeness to Jammeh would be able to convince the recalcitrant Gambian leader to step down before 19 January, when the new president is expected to be sworn in.

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