On 13th January, an ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) mediation mission led by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is expected in The Gambia’s capital – Banjul – in order to try and negotiate a peaceful democratic transition following last month’s disputed election. The surprise result, which saw the opposition coalition candidate, Adama Barrow, defeat the incumbent, President Yahya Jammeh, was followed by Jammeh conceding defeat live on television, which was possibly even more surprising than the vote itself. However, this initial sign of optimism for Gambian democracy was short-lived, as Jammeh quickly reversed his acceptance and lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court.
Consequently, the military has increased its presence in Gambia and particularly on the streets of Banjul. The armed forces took control of the Electoral Commission’s office and the Commission’s Chief, Alieu Momar Njai, has gone into hiding. Despite initial positive changes following the election result, the repressive tactics adopted by the government during the election campaign are once again dominating Gambia’s political environment. This is illustrated by the closure of four private radio stations since the start of the New Year.
Jammeh’s refusal to accept last month’s election result has attracted widespread criticism from the international community. The UN, AU and ECOWAS have condemned Jammeh’s actions and the UN Security Council called on Jammeh to “respect the choice of the sovereign people of The Gambia”. It is clear that such organisations fear that Jammeh’s refusal to accept the result could cause large scale political violence. This was demonstrated by the UN Security Council’s decision to urge all parties to exercise “maximum restraint, refrain from violence and remain calm”.
The ECOWAS mediation mission is seen as the most promising method of preventing such political violence. On the 8th January, Liberian President, and member of the mission, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, stated that the organisation is “committed to a peaceful mediation and a peaceful transfer of power”. When questioned on ECOWAS’ willingness to use force, she responded by stating “no, we want to keep the region peaceful”. However, only two days later, Nigerian Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, told Radio France Internationale (RFI) that “we’re not ruling anything out”, when questioned on military intervention, and it has been reported that Senegal is prepared to send troops to intervene if the situation deteriorates. Thus, although it is not clear if ECOWAS will ultimately intervene, it seems that it is willing to take a tough stance towards Jammeh.
This is significant as in The Gambia it is not clear how much support Jammeh will be able to muster if he refuses to step down. On 10th January, Jammeh’s Information Minister, Sheriff Bojang, resigned and fled to Senegal stating that through using a “veneer of constitutionalism”, Jammeh is attempting to “subvert the express will of the Gambian electorate”. This followed the less pronounced resignation of Gambia’s Foreign Minister, Neneh Macdouall-Gaye, in December 2016. Although pro-Government media in The Gambia made much of the Army Chief’s renewed “assurance of the unflinching loyalty and support of The Gambian Armed Forces” to Jammeh, questions have been raised about Lieutenant-General Ousman Badjie’s motivations and it is not clear if such support exists amongst the military more widely. Thus, it seems that pressure is mounting on Jammeh to step down as political tensions continue to rise.
The announcement on 10th January by Gambia’s Chief Justice, Emmanuel Fagbenle, that the Supreme Court cannot rule on Jammeh’s challenge to the electoral result until May has increased tension in the country further. This is due to the fact that Gambia’s Supreme Court relies on judges seconded from other countries, including Fagbenle, who is Nigerian. As a result, Jammeh’s legal challenge will not be dealt with until after the end of his term, increasing the likelihood that he will refuse to step down.
Jammeh’s mandate is set to end on 18th January and it seems unlikely that he will relinquish power peacefully. Although it is possible that Jammeh is merely trying to negotiate the transfer of power in order to prevent himself from being tried for human rights abuses under a new government, if he remains as president past 18th January, it is likely to cause widespread unrest. It appears that a lot rests on ECOWAS’ mediation mission to try to find a peaceful solution as tensions continue to rise.