The Gambia’s unfolding electoral and transition crisis, following the December 1, 2016 presidential vote, is both unprecedented though not surprising. What was truly surprising, was President Jammeh’s acceptance of the election result, describing the process itself as the most “free and fair in the world.” He further declared that, as a “true Muslim, his electoral defeat was “the will of Allah,” and that “the Gambian people had spoken.” Outgoing President Jammeh then promised to ensure a smooth transition of power to President-elect Adama Barrow. Jammeh’s demonstrated goodwill toward President-elect Barrow was hailed as a new day in the tattered history of Gambia’s democracy. During a televised phone call to Barrow, Jammeh conceded defeat and, in fact, exchanged pleasantries and jokes with the president to be. All that changed dramatically a week later when President Jammeh under the glare of television lights reversed himself. He proceeded to contest both the process and outcome of the presidential vote declaring it, “not free and fair” because of numerous irregularities.
Jammeh proceeded to call for new elections presided over by a “God-fearing Independent Electoral Commission,” in which “all Gambians will vote,” His announcement precipitated a quick and uniform response. Neighboring Senegal set the tone when it strongly condemned Jammeh’s decision. The U.S, U.N, and EU followed suit condemning Jammeh’s action and called on him to “respect the will of the Gambian people.” The ensuing hours following Jammeh’s announcement flung the country into an unprecedented domestic political crisis with worldwide media coverage the reverberations of which are still being felt.
Many believe that Jammeh has the right to contest the results but exceeded his presidential powers when he on his own, rather than the IEC, nullified the election result. To some political observers of Gambia’s political scene Jammeh’s announcement came as no surprise. In fact, it was expected, not a week later, but immediately after the results were announced on December 2, 2016. What could have possibly moved President Jammeh to take such a drastic decision?
Reasons for Jammeh’s self-reversal and rejection of the election result are multiple. Perhaps, the most important and immediate was correction by the Independent Electoral Commission Chair, Alieu Momoar Njie, of the vote count in which President-elect Barrow’s margin of victory over President Jammeh, fell from 9% to 4%. While this did not alter the presidential outcome it did not sit well with Jammeh and he thereupon seized it to challenge the legality of the polls and to discredit IEC chairman, who Jammeh selected single-handedly to conduct the elections.
Another important reason contributing to Jammeh’s 360-degree pivot, were threats of his future prosecution issued by a non-party leader of the newly elected coalition in the London-based Guardian newspaper. This clearly ruffled and upstaged Jammeh’s plans to retire to his farm, and “grow what I eat, and eat what I grow.” Yet, many Gambians expected that it was only a matter of time before Jammeh answered to allegations of murder, rape and corruption in court. Jammeh’s underling fearing future prosecution and long prison terms nudged him, it is alleged, to renege on his promises, which sent the country into a political tailspin.
By dismissing the result and vowing to hold new presidential elections, Jammeh is guilty of overreach, which opened him to adverse criticism internationally, particularly, Senegal’s. In a sense, Jammeh’s unorthodox reversal has become a bargaining device by which to shelter himself from a prolonged jail term or execution. Perhaps, for the first time in his twenty-two years in power, Jammeh felt cornered, which left him vulnerable and powerless. By insisting on fresh elections, Jammeh believes he could extract concessions, perhaps clemency from Barrow’s government in exchange for stepping down. It is Jammeh’s last ditch effort to exit the political scene and, possibly, the country alive, unharmed and “pardoned.”
Frankly, Jammeh is scared. Monitoring his speech on GRTS, he looked tired, and stressed. He also appeared sleep, water and food deprived. With darting eyes closed part of the time, he gave, as to be expected, an incoherent and often contradictory justification for annulling the election result. His ramblings made sense to none but himself- not even his ardent supporters. The uncharacteristically strong message from Senegal authorities could not be clearer. Regional, continental, international, and civil society groupings followed in Senegal’s lead, which left him all the more isolated, internationally. President Jammeh’s relations with western donors on whom the Gambia depends so heavily for development assistance, has for the twenty-two year duration of his rule remained adversarial.
What are the likely political outcome(s) of this deepening political crisis? In one scenario, Jammeh could be prevailed upon by regional leaders, including President Sall of Senegal with support from Nigeria’s Buhari and Liberia’s Sirleaf, the US and other external powers, to immediately relinquish power. An unlikely prospect is Jammeh making a successful bid to extract clemency or tangible concessions from the new Barrow Government. If this fails, Jammeh could try, perhaps unsuccessfully, to plunge the country into civil strife- leading to an external force, possibly a Senegal-led force, to intervene militarily. Alternatively, Barrow could be pressured by regional leaders to offer Jammeh, in the name of “peace,” a safe exit to a third country, “unharmed,” and “free.” Another scenario of popular protests which render Gambia ungovernable could also emerge, which Jammeh could then use as a pretext to crackdown on the opposition and enforce his decision.
In sum, Jammeh’s ill-advised decision to nullify the December 1, 2016 presidential election, and hold a new one, is unconstitutional and harkens back to the days of military rule and military decrees. It is effectively another coup detat, an unconstitutional grab of power backed by elements in Gambia’s divided military. However, Jammeh’s options are narrowing quickly by the hour. He can climb down from his rigid and untenable position to avert the wrath of a Senegalese intervention military force, and save Gambia and Senegal from unnecessary loss of life and face justice. Alternatively, Jammeh, even from a severely weakened position, could be granted limited concessions and allowed to exit to a third country with only the garments on his back. However, given Jammeh’s proclivity for violence, alongside a headstrong, prideful disposition, he will likely scuff at these offers. When and how this crisis will likely end is anyone’s guess. Yet, it could very well turn into Jammeh’s Waterloo- a rapid descend into “hell,” “six-feet-deep.”
Professor Abdoulaye Saine
Oxford, Ohio, USA