Gambia on edge as outgoing president clings to power

Gambians fear the onset of violence as Yahya Jammeh refuses to step down despite losing elections

Yahya Jammeh

A billboard depicting Longtime controversial Gambian President Yayah Jammeh in Banjul, Gambia on December 12, 2016 following the presidential elections. ( Xaume Olleros – Anadolu Agency )

Gambians, who felt a glimmer of hope after the shock defeat of their long-standing President Yahya Jammeh in the country’s elections at the hands of property developer Adama Barrow, are now on the edge.

After Jammeh declared Friday he was not going to keep his word about accepting defeat in the election, Gambians now fear the onset of violence in the prevailing environment of political uncertainty.

Some have begun sending their families to rural communities while others are sending their loved ones to neighboring Senegal.

It remains uncertain which way the political tide will flow in the country, but soldiers can now be seen everywhere in the country, who are armed to their teeth in combat gear, standing behind sand bags.

The media too is coming under pressure. On Saturday, the website of a pro-government newspaper, Daily Observer, was hacked allegedly by Barrow’s supporters.

Moreover, some lecturers at Gambia’s only university have issued a petition asking their colleagues to boycott lectures and all activities of the institution.

U-turn politics

Jammeh, who continues to cling to power, has ruled Gambia with an iron fist for 22 years. Gambians got only “a week of democracy” between the president first declaring he accepts the election result and when he claimed there have been irregularities in the process.

On Dec. 2, Jammeh surprised everyone when he extended a helping hand to his successor on national television. With smiles and jokes, a style uncharacteristic of Gambia’s tough-talking military ruler, he had telephoned Barrow, the small West African nation’s president-elect, to express his readiness to offer any advice that might be needed.

However, a week later on Friday, Jammeh announced in a nationally televised address that he was rejecting the outcome of the election in its “totality”, citing irregularities in the process, creating a new political crisis in the country.

Dissent within ranks?

Rumors are strife in Gambia these days with some claiming divided loyalty in the army. Chief of Defense Staff, Ousman Badgie, and Police Inspector General Yankuba Sonko are thought to be on the coalition’s side, while State Guard Commander Saul Badgie, Interior Minister Momodou Alieu Bah and the National Intelligence Agency personnel are said to be with Jammeh still.

Many people, including the strongman’s perceived allies have reportedly celebrated the end of “fear” and beginning of a “new Gambia” following Jammeh’s defeat.

Speaking about the big change in attitudes towards Jammeh, Lamin, a civil servant at the Interior Ministry who shared only his first name due to safety concerns, said: “After Jammeh was defeated, people were speaking freely in offices against him and his policies. There are lots of people who are not in support of him and they are saying we ‘need changes”.

“Nobody knows how Jammeh will respond to that if his reign continues.”

During his recent speech, Jammeh also hinted that some people from within his own ranks had turned against him after his election defeat.

Speaking on national television, he said the lesson he had learnt after his concession was that a lot of people who were “green,” which represents his party’s color, had “turned to yellow overnight,” which is the color of the country’s main opposition, the United Democratic Party.

Social media outrage

Public outrage over Jammeh’s rejection of the results is also evident on social media sites, where observers insist the outgoing president is a relic of the past and Gambians would not turn back to the old days at any cost.

Civil servants, journalists and people from all works of life have taken to social media to comment on the political situation in terms that would have been unthinkable under Jammeh’s reign.

Sidi Sanneh, a former minister under Jammeh and now a political activist and a blogger, told The Torch the outgoing president may currently “control the narrative” but it would not be “for long”.

“The Gambian people have had enough of dictatorship. They have tasted how freedom looks and feels like in one short week. They have no intention of going back to dictatorship,” Sanneh, who once had a working relationship with the strongman, said.

“Jammeh will try to intimidate those who were jubilating, especially those he thought were supporters of the APRC [the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction] but he will be doing so at his own risk of having the people revolt in the streets of Banjul and the Kombos,” he said.

He added Jammeh might not like what people have said but he will “tread very carefully” even if he intends “any mass arrests”, otherwise, he would risk “popular uprising”.

Legal challenge

Section 49 of Gambian constitution gives Jammeh only 10 days to challenge the election results in the Supreme Court – a deadline that ended Sunday.

According to the constitution, the petition has to be filed within “10 days” and not “10 working days”, meaning Jammeh has already lost time to challenge the results in court.

Kemo Conteh, a public policy consultant in Gambia, said Jammeh had ran late on the submission of his petition because “he is not used to the ways of the rule of law.

“He is more familiar with the instruments of fiats and directives, as his style of ruling Gambia. He lost time because he was busy figuring out how to juggle his way with administrative, political or military fiat.”

Moreover, on Monday, the Gambia Bar Association in a statement said there is currently no legitimate legal mechanism in the country to hear and determine the election petition filed by the outgoing president, especially due to the absence of a Supreme Court panel of judges.

The association said it would be “against the principles of natural justice” if Jammeh now appointed Supreme Court judges to hear a petition filed by himself or by somebody else on his behalf over the election result. It urged him to step down immediately.

Opposition vows to fight

The coalition and the opposition Gambia Democratic Congress continue to reject Jammeh’s claims of annulling the election results, asking him to maintain his previous position “in the interest of peace”.

“Adama Barrow is the president elect of Gambia and that decision is irreversible,” Essa Jallow, the press officer of opposition Gambia Democratic Congress party told The Torch.

Halifa Sallah, coalition spokesperson, told journalists on Saturday people were now preparing for an ugly outcome.

The president-elect said Saturday that it was “unconstitutional” for Jammeh to declare an annulment of the country’s recent election results.

Barrow said the outgoing president does not have the authority to reject the results nor order a new vote. “The IEC [Independent Election Commission] is the only competent authority to announce the results of elections and declare a winner. It was already done sure and I am the president elect,” he said.

However, the ruling APRC party too is sticking to its guns. On Saturday, it said in a statement the election result would be challenged in the Supreme Court.

The situation remains fluid in the country. Several African leaders are now heading towards the country to broker a peaceful transition of power – a tall endeavor, which, analysts say, if they fail to achieve could brew chaos in Gambia for years to come.

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