By Foday Samateh
The release of Lawyer Darboe and his UDP top executive from prison just days after the Coalition 2016 clinched victory was a landmark event. They had been behind bars for eight gruesome months. The fact that they were out on bail pending the appeal of their three-year sentence for a peaceful protest was a mere legal technicality of the judicial process going through the motions. One way or another, they were never going back to Mile Two. This sudden development — a consequence of a consequential election — was an indication of multiple changes happening simultaneously. Among the changes were the spirit of democracy and the institutions of justice asserting themselves.
One could only imagine the all-too powerful dictator holed up at the State House feeling all too powerless to see judges act independently of his wishes by letting the rule of law and the constitutional rights of his sworn enemies prevail. More fascinating to watch would be his reaction to the frenzied scenes in the streets since the election. The honking cars. The happy mobs taunting him with their dancing and singing. The hotheads scaling billboards and telephone poles to rip his ubiquitous posters and photos. And the mischievous media broadcasting the maddening images for all the world to see.
He must have wished he was Christopher Sly in the Taming of the Shrew. But he wasn’t some pauper who, having fallen asleep outside an alehouse, woke up dressed as a wealthy lord in a palatial bed attended by a queen and servants. Moreover, this wasn’t some comic prank. This was real. The pitiless tyrant was rendered helpless to witness his unceremonious undoing. So he must have wondered why people wondered why he hated democracy with every fiber of his being. Had he been Richard II compelled to participate in his own deposition, he would have versified his state of mind for posterity. But he was no king with a gift for rhymes. If anything, he was a kindred soul of Richard III. Their prowess lay not in poetry but in violence. They both usurped power and maintained it through bloodshed, lies and corrupting good people as accomplices in their deceptions, frauds, and crimes.
The same day Darboe and 19 others were released, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) announced an update of the official tally of the votes in the election. The new results cut Barrow’s lead by more than half. That seemed to have changed nothing. The winner was still the winner; and the loser, the loser.
Two days later, amid the reckoning for the dictator and rejoicing for the nation, came the striking headline: “The Gambia’s new rulers vow to prosecute outgoing president.” The subtitle added: “Yahya Jammeh has ‘bunkers and treasure’ at his farm near Senegal border and could start rebel movement, claims coalition.” The sensational news story was an interview Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, a co-chair of the coalition, gave to the London Guardian at the court house in Banjul during the bail hearing for Darboe and the 19 others.
According to her: Yahya Jammeh would, within a year of stepping down from power, be prosecuted for his crimes, either in the country or other jurisdiction, possibly the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The coalition (which was yet to assume office) was preventing the dictator from leaving the country to escape justice or start a rebellion. Nor would they allow him to retire to his farm in his hometown of Kanilai as he planned, because she had been reliably informed that he had bunkers of weapons and billions of ill-gotten dollars and pounds there to abscond the country or mount an insurgency. The coalition government would also establish a commission to investigate him for corruption and his foreign-born wife she called a “gold-digger,” who emptied the public coffers.
“Oh God,” erupted the collective gasp, “what was she thinking?!”
No imagination about the dictator’s reaction was required this time.
A man terrified of a threat, even an improbable one, would grasped at anything resembling a fortuitous chance to change the course of events. If the story in the Guardian was his worst nightmare, the new election results would be his silver lining in his desperation for a pretext, however implausible, to try clinging on to power. This would be his Richard III dream moment for survival.
And so he reappeared on television to tell the nation never mind about his unconditional concession in which he lauded the election as the freest and fairest in history, as well as the Will of Allah and The Gambian people. It was rigged, he now claimed. A large number of his supporters had been denied access to the ballot, and the results were collated inaccurately. In light of “serious and unacceptable abnormalities” in the process, he decided to reject the outcome. A new election would be conducted under a “God-fearing” independent electoral commission.
Thus spake the dictator. And the political landscape registered a seismic quake and turbulent aftershocks. The post-election transition for the country’s first peaceful transfer of power from one president to another descended into a crisis. The ruthless ruler whose imminent leaving provided the occasion for revels might not be leaving after all. Public celebrations for democracy ended prematurely. Confusion and concern reigned supreme.
It would be impossible to conclude that Yahya Jammeh would never have reconsidered his acceptance of the election but for the Independent Electoral Commission’s avoidable mistake and Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang’s boneheaded recklessness. What could never be ruled out was that, given the timing and his professed reasons, the two incidents were the precipitating factors for this particular, dangerous gamble.
The nation and the world held their breath for the president-elect’s response to this manufactured crisis. Since Adama Barrow hadn’t delivered a victory speech or made any formal announcement after the election, his reaction would be his first presidential statement. It would determine whether he would blink and squander the historic moment for himself and the country, or he would call the dictator’s bluff. His rebuttal was masterful on substance and optics. Flanked by his coalition partners, he read a prepared statement to make a constitutional case that the dictator’s claim of annulling the election had no force of law. Only the Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission had the power under the Constitution to declare elections valid or invalid, not the President. The election therefore remained valid and the coalition wouldn’t participate in any do-over. The presence of his coalition partners symbolized a united team defending their victory collectively. But that public show of unity would be the last time the coalition unequivocally spoke with one voice.
Barrow’s statement did its primary job. It dispelled any notion that the President could annul an election. Sadly, though, it didn’t nib the crisis in the bud. Not even his reaffirming of his conciliatory remarks since the election that he would prefer the dictator to stay in the country and enjoy a peaceful retirement as an ex-president helped diffuse the situation.
The damage had been done already for Barrow’s gracious promise to allay the fears of the dictator who used promises as duplicitous means to nefarious ends. Only one thing could be logical to the tormented mind: Since the coalition didn’t trust him, as Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang had asserted, he mustn’t trust them, either. His salvation was to invoke a right that had the appearance of a justifiable claim. If the Constitution denied him the power to invalidate the election, it granted him one indisputable right. As a candidate in the election he reserved the right to petition the results at the Supreme Court. Like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice said, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
But when the dictator announced to take his case to the highest court in the land, the coalition was thankful for one reason: the dictator himself. The petition had to be filed within 10 days of the election and the court had to reach a decision within 30 days. Even if he had met the filing deadline, the case couldn’t be heard within the time frame stipulated in the Constitution. His arrogant disregard for institutions that might restrain his autocratic tendencies didn’t spare even the Supreme Court. Before the election, the country had no Supreme Court to speak of. He made no priority to appoint judges, other than the Chief Justice, to form a quorum on the Court
The judges who had been hired from Nigeria and Sierra Leone, as most of the superior court judges tended to come from those two places and Ghana, wouldn’t make it to the country soon enough to hear the case in time. According to the Chief Justice, a Nigerian, the earliest the new judges could wrap up their pending cases in their home countries and arrive to hear the petition would be March, which would be well over a month after the dictator’s five-year term was supposed to end. It’s hard to disagree with the dictator that political interference was behind such a calculated delay. Like most countries, especially in the region, Nigeria was siding with the coalition and, in the wake of the crisis, the government there most certainly slow-walked the arrival schedule of their nationals to run the judicial clock out on the dictator. But for that, Adama Barrow might have his victory challenged in the Supreme Court.
Imagine that Nigeria had expedited the arrival of the judges to hear the dictator’s petition. Worse still, imagine that the dictator had appointed the full Supreme Court with his handpicked mercenary judges before the election. And imagine that those judges ruled in favor of his petition, which was highly likely, especially in the second scenario. That meant, the Constitution being the supreme law of the land and the Supreme Court being the final authority on all legal disputes arising out of the Constitution, the dictator’s gamble might have very well worked.
If the Supreme Court cited the electoral commission’s two sets of final results and threw in the dictator’s claims of serious abnormalities in the voting process as evidence of grievous electoral malpractices that warranted a new election, however blatant or corrupt the ruling proved to be, the dictator would have the legal cover he needed to get his wish for a second election. In the likely absence of a mass uprising or a military revolt, he would have gotten away with it. No other body in the country or ECOWAS or the UN Security Council would have the legal authority to demand otherwise. There would be a lot of noise and handwringing, but just that — a lot of noise and handwringing, which the dictator had been immune to for as long as anyone cared to remember.
After his announcement that he annulled the election, the joke around the world was he had made a mistake dictators never made. He had organized a free and fair election. Dictators don’t trust the voters in case they have a mind of their own. So they rig the process to avoid any shocking surprises. The whole point of dictatorship is to prevent people from making their own decisions or taking actions that may be at variance with the dictator’s interest. Yahya Jammeh had been cocky heading into the election, and he ended up paying the price of over-confidence and complacency. Had there been a second vote, he would have fired the members of the electoral commission and hired hirelings he referred to as “God-fearing” to declare him the winner. And the joke would shift from him to everyone else. The joke remained on him because he had refused to appoint a functioning Supreme Court, even one at his beck and call, when he had all the time in the world to do so. In that regard, let no one ever say Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship hadn’t once paid off for The Gambia. What’s more, in this instance when it counted the most, he was the sole victim.
Time having run out on his only legal option, he was left with no case to carry on challenging the election. But he still dug in, insisting that his moot petition for a new election must be heard by the Supreme Court irrespective of constitutional deadlines. This was pure brinkmanship for the dictator after he was left with no conceivable claim to stay in power. And that worried him. By burning any goodwill he might have bought with his concession speech, he had boxed himself into a precarious corner. Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang admitting to the Guardian the coalition’s explicit distrust of him might still be recurring to him, and intensifying his own implicit distrust of the coalition. He must have concluded that his dream of a cozy retirement at his Kanilai farm was over. The numerous lands and properties and immense wealth he had acquired over two decades would be confiscated. And he must have been frank with himself that, considering all the crimes he had committed or sanctioned, including murders, he would be taken to Mile Two Prison, the hellhole he proudly bragged about as his five-star hotel for his enemies. Especially terrifying for him must be the remote likelihood that he would stand trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. So he must have convinced himself that he was better off defiantly hunkering down at the State House under the protection of his most loyal units in the military.
The prospect of war breaking out through either revolt within the ranks of the armed forces or military intervention from outside would work to his advantage as the ultimate bargaining chip to overturn the will of the people. But if it came to such eventualities and he was going down, the country might as well be a collateral damage. That was what he wanted everyone to believe.
And so began the so-called impasse — a breakdown of cooperation between the outgoing and incoming administrations during the constitutionally mandated transition.
The dictator’s grandstanding put Adama Barrow in an impossible bind. As president-elect, he was powerless to do anything to arrest the situation. And until the 50-day transition was over, Yahya Jammeh was still the lawful President. The coalition, however, made sure there was no misunderstanding about the constitutional implications of the dictator refusing to step down at the end of his five-year term. The spokesman, Halifa Sallah, stated loud and clear that if Yahya Jammeh stayed in power a day beyond January 19th, he would become a rebel.
The dictator could only scoff at such an important distinction since his choices were being a rebel in the State House or a prisoner in Mile Two. His position so staked-out, the onus was now on Adama Barrow to come up with an endgame.
Barrow’s role required him to operate on two parallel tracks. The first track was making sure that he assumed power at the end of the transition period with or without the dictator’s cooperation. It was no secret that Barrow was getting conflicting advice within the coalition. Some, including Halifa Sallah, wanted them to pursue dialogue with Yahya Jammeh to build trust, reach an understanding and avert violent conflict. Others, including The Gambia Moral Congress (GMC) Leader Mai Fatty, wanted them to reach out to Senegal to rein in the dictator with a show or use of military force. The divergence of views on complex matters like this was natural. But the degree of intensity of differences became only widely known after memos of discussions and correspondences were anonymously leaked to the media. The disagreement behind closed doors went public when Mai Fatty began releasing his own confrontational statements to the dictator on social media. These videos that gained popularity based on shares and views were in direct contrast to the diplomatic statements by Halifa Sallah, the coalition spokesman. Whether Mai Fatty was going rogue or acting with Barrow’s tacit approval was an open question.
Barrow never stated his position on handling the impasse, at least not publicly. If he even had a position, he kept it close to his vest and let both sides believe he was on their side. And like during the campaign when his generic promises led the disparate camps of his supporters to project their hopes on him, here, too, both sides of the coalition could be forgiven to think that he was viewing things from their perspective. Most important of all, the dictator would be left guessing what Barrow would ultimately do. Some would grade that as brilliant leadership. But was that in fact the case? Was Adama Barrow capable of pulling off that level of sophisticated game? If so, that would make him a great strategic and tactical thinker the likes of which the country was yet to see. He had been underestimated three times before in his bid for the nation’s highest office. To his credit, he had defied the naysayers each time with a spectacular performance.
Was there another explanation? Whatever the man’s merits might be, Barrow proved himself to be a very lucky politician so far. The conditions responsible for his successive successes in his brief career in national politics were none of his own making. He just seemed to have perfect timing or the timing of crucial moments seemed to be just perfect for him. He became the UDP nominee because the most likely candidates were either locked up in prison or too scared to run. He easily won the primary of a coalition Halifa Sallah had put his heart into putting together, and thus handing him the election. He avoided a legal challenge to his victory because the dictator had been too arrogant to appoint a Supreme Court that would have heard the petition.
Furthermore, in his task to take power from the paranoid dictator when the time came, he was getting ready help from all the right places. Key countries in the region, especially Senegal, had no qualms about standing up for the democratic will of The Gambian people for two of many reasons. First: Yahya Jammeh had made himself too radioactive to his fellow heads of state and the world at large as both a clown and a tyrant. And second: the dictator’s refusal to comply with the verdict of the election happened at a time when, unlike in the past, ECOWAS was serious about democracy in the region. With ECOWAS, the African Union, and the UN Security Council stepping in to defend the democratic choice of the country, Barrow was once again benefiting from the actions and efforts of others.
After ECOWAS made threats of force, which were echoed by the African Union and the UN Security Council, the regional body began mediation to end the impasse. The Presidents of Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia flew down to Banjul to broker a peaceful resolution. They held talks with the dictator at the State House and met Barrow at Kairaba Beach Hotel. Because of the dictator’s adamance on the only thing he could demand at this point with any pretentious straight face — to get a hearing on his constitutionally dead petition in the Supreme Court that still didn’t exist — the shuttle diplomacy made little headway.
Meanwhile, Barrow carried on receiving visitors at the hotel daily. They included delegations from foreign countries, national organizations, local associations, towns, villages and hamlets across the country. While the meetings with foreign delegations took place in private, the rest were usually public events. The interactions were demonstrations of citizens’ support for the president-elect. The excitement of these well-wishers had great effect on Barrow’s mood. Grateful for the continuous source of morale boost, he hardly ever betrayed the anger he must have felt toward the dictator for denying him a smooth transition as well as the tranquility to enjoy his moment of glory. And whatever worries he must have about the volatile situation, he never unburdened himself to the public. He was, in tone, tenor of message and temperament, still the same man the country had seen on the campaign trail. His demeanor remained amicable and his words innocuous. Also unsurprising, he still spoke in platitudes that were so generic everyone could read their specific interests into them.
All references to the dictator were banal and bland. His monotonous remarks about the impasse to the crowds that came to see him could be summed up as: The coalition won the election. Yahya Jammeh said it was the freest and fairest election. But he changed his mind because he wanted a new election. If Yahya Jammeh wasn’t tired of running for election, the coalition had enough. Come January 19th, he (Barrow) would assume power.
While this was a good enough rejection of the dictator’s ruse for another election, it was too prosaic compared to the pith, pitch and potency of a powerful phrase a genius coined. The iconic slogan “The Gambia Has Decided” launched on a billboard resonated instantly with the public, inspired banners, bumper stickers, hashtags, placards, t-shirts, and was adopted into a rallying cry for democracy. Arguably, its popularizing effect helped galvanize the nation into pushing back against the dictator’s ploy to negate the election in a way nothing else did.
Regarding Barrow’s plans for the country, he added little to his campaign message. The additions, such as they were, could be considered revealing nonetheless. They hinted at Barrow’s beliefs and foreshadowed the type of president he would be. The nostalgics for the past wanted him to bring back the bygone days of the first republic when times were simpler thanks to traditional conventions, cultural and religious conservatism, and political patronage and prestige. The dreamers for the future wanted him to carry out institutional and governance reforms to usher in the third republic that would be materially different from the preceding ones. At this point in the transition, it should be clear to the dreamers that Barrow was, at heart, a nostalgic. The nostalgics were also in for their own share of disappointments. They just didn’t realize it at the time.
Everyone was focused on either the first or third republic, and simply dismissed the second republic as totally discredited without pausing to wonder what Barrow really thought of it. If he hadn’t given any indication during the campaign, he surely did some bit of it in his remarks to the visiting well-wishers. Even then, for someone who repeatedly promised to overhaul everything, he never condemned the dictator’s record wholesale. Some might argue that was realistic and therefore understandable for any number of reasons. Still, the curious question must be asked: Why did Barrow choose to criticize, besides the most outrageous acts and violations like killings and arbitrary arrests, only certain aspects of the dictator’s governing style and conduct in office and not others that just as much demanded condemnation?
For instance, he never criticized Yahya Jammeh for his frequent flying out of the country as waste of money; his wife’s frequent trips to different continents at the taxpayers’ expense; his youth movement as a form of personality cult; his foundation and his wife’s foundation as conduits for bribery and corruption; his caravan-like entourages when traveling the country as extravagant use of public funds; his myriad wheelings and dealings as conflicts of interest; his acceptance of secret donations as pay-to-play schemes, his doling out cash and bestowing of gifts as politics of patronage. The unquestioned assumption that no president after the dictator would entertain even the thought of such prodigal and unscrupulous practices turned out to be awfully wrong. What did that say about Barrow’s mindset about the presidency?
On the economy and national development, Barrow’s beliefs were less unclear but not more reassuring. His remarks to the well-wishers revealed two things about his presumptions. The primary one was that Yahya Jammeh had hard time getting enough assistance to develop the country because Yahya Jammeh couldn’t get along with other countries, especially in the West. He (Barrow) would overcome that problem by getting along with everyone. The secondary one was that the little assistance Yahya Jammeh managed to get was mismanaged. He (Barrow) would get the needed assistance to develop the country. To say that The Gambia needed assistance would be an understatement. But to think that assistance would be the key to the nation’s development constituted apparent misapprehension of the limited utility of foreign aid in national development.
Barrow couldn’t have kinder words for his well-wishers for their support, which he described as indispensable to his victory. He thanked them for their contributions to the campaign and their votes. One particular group he never failed to single out for praise was the Diaspora. He paid them profuse gratitude for the funds they provided and the spirited campaign they waged on social media. All that would seem so antiquated with Barrow’s post-inaugural hostility toward the Diaspora and social media especially. Even back then, one could only wonder if his prodigious commendations were based on his own familiarity with much of the stuff that passed for content on social media. The innocent explanation could that, being too busy campaigning, he had no time to catch up on things that were trending online. He had to make do with second-hand information selectively sold to him by self-seekers trying to worm their way into the future president’s goodwill. And so, acting like a gentleman, he expressed heartfelt words for the online community. But on becoming president, he knew the unvarnished truth and developed a different feeling. If Barrow had known about the terabytes of garbage, trash, fictions of imagination, deliberate misinformation, baseless rumors, character assassinations, and blatant lies uploaded and shared on social media, and gave the unqualified shoutout just because the dictator had been the target, he had only himself to blame for his Faustian bargain with forces whose allegiance would always be to their own relevance. Once Yahya Jammeh was out, they would need a new target to stay relevant.
In addition to the daily meetings with organizations, associations and groups of citizens, Barrow granted a handful of interviews to national and international media. His answers to questions were almost always regurgitation of his campaign platitudes and remarks to the well-wishers. No real news; but no bloopers, either.
That aside, the pedestrian thinking Barrow was exhibiting exposed something crucially missing — the second track of his role in the transition. If he had the perfect excuse for not sharing with the public his plan to take power from the dictator at the end of the tradition period, he had no excuse whatsoever for not unveiling his plans for the country once he assumed power. The coalition’s argument at the time was that they couldn’t make any progress on that front because the dictator had ended all transitional communications and consultations with them. The ideal would be for the two sides to engage in comprehensive briefings across ministries, agencies and enterprises within the executive branch that would be affected by the change in administrations. The purpose of these briefings would help the incoming administration to learn in advance essential facts — the state of the departing administration’s active policies, the challenges and the problems — when it comes into office. However, no amount of transitional briefing or cooperation would help set or formulate the new administration’s own governing agenda, especially an administration that promised sweeping reforms.
The dictator’s refusal to cooperate on the transition didn’t prevent Barrow from meeting crowds after crowds of well-wishers for the best part of 50 days and delivering to them his well-memorized platitudes. All that time the coalition was only reacting to the dictator’s Big Brother-style television broadcasts about how he would vanquish all enemies who dared to make any attempts on his claim on power. For 50 days, the coalition never once controlled the narrative or drove the news. To the extent that they had a media operation, when the spokesman held press conferences or gave interviews, he oftentimes came across as a neutral expert providing disinterested analysis of the contention between the two sides rather than making the coalition’s case against the offending dictator. And besides Barrow’s rebuttal to the dictator’s bogus annulment of the election, the coalition never arranged for him to be in any formal setting to speak to the nation as the president-elect. For those 50 days, Barrow had time for everything but a policy speech on reforms he would carry out the moment he was sworn into office. Zip on the economy. Zilch on institutional reforms. Zero on everything else. Did they even have any plans beyond platitudes? During the campaign, Adama Barrow promised to assemble a first-rate team with vast knowledge in running an effective government. Since little was happening in pubic, what were they doing behind the scenes in those 50 days? Were they winging it day by day?
It was obvious that they disagreed on how to end the impasse. As the days passed, it became increasingly clear that those who preferred a peaceful resolution by reasoning with Yahya Jammeh were losing to those who were advocating for credible threat or use of force through foreign military intervention. There were also tale-tell signs of infighting about the Gentleman’s Agreement they had drafted as the principles and objectives of the coalition.
All through the campaign and until Lawyer Darboe’s release from Mile Two, the coalition member closest to Barrow had been Halifa Sallah. In addition to being the spokesman, Sallah had been a trusted counselor and confidant to the candidate. His influence was manifest in not just the coalition’s construct and themes for the election. Barrow sprinkled his campaign message with the thinking and phraseologies of Sallah’s PDOIS and its FOROYAA newspaper, if less eloquently. But soon after Darboe left prison and resumed his duties as the leader of UDP, Sallah’s closeness to Barrow began waning. It would never improve.
In spite of these forewarnings at the time, self-anointed Barrow whisperers on social media would have the country believe that all was going honky-dory. They had the same explanation for every concern raised about the lack of details about what the coalition was doing. What was Barrow’s plan to compel Yahya Jammeh from power? He had a secret plan which he couldn’t share with the public, they claimed, lest the dictator know about it and sabotage it. Why didn’t Barrow appoint his cabinet? He appointed his cabinet already but couldn’t announce the names, they claimed, lest the dictator target those individuals. On every imaginable matter, they assured the public that they had spoken with Barrow and all necessary preparations were being made. Why, one couldn’t help but wonder, these purported whisperers appeared to be more informed about Barrow’s plans than the coalition spokesman?
As it turned out, hardly any of these claims had so much as a tangential bearing on the truth. Barrow hadn’t appointed a cabinet or put together a governing agenda that was ready to be rolled out the day after inauguration. And on this score, no one involved in the coalition could be absolved of abdication of responsibility; they each bore varying degrees of blame.
On the weightier matter of solving the impasse, the coalition had not much of a realistic plan of their own, either. They couldn’t, in all objective sense, make headway with the dictator who remained stubbornly defiant as the transition entered its final weeks. The armed forces ostensibly loyal to their feared commander-in-chief, the coalition had little recourse to counting on the resolve of outside forces to find a solution.
The dictator was, for his part, counting on testing that same resolve. He kept rebuffing every diplomatic overture for an amicable resolution. And instead of budging or softening his recalcitrant stance, he began sounding more and more belligerent. Hence, after another trip to Banjul, the four-member team of regional presidents representing ECOWAS failed to broker any agreement on the worsening crisis. But if the dictator had hoped to bog them down in fruitless talks with no end in sight, he never prepared for the next turn of events.
On this visit, and with only days left in the transition, the team of presidents decided to depart with Barrow for further talks with other ECOWAS heads of state at the Africa-France summit in Mali. As a symbolic matter, this was a categorical statement of international endorsement for Barrow and a repudiation of the dictator. ECOWAS, the African Union, and the UN Security Council had all recognized Barrow as the legitimate choice of The Gambia people. As far as the dictator was concerned, though, these diplomatic coups were nothing but more words. No effective action had so far been taken to remove him from power. So he had all the incentives to keep testing the resolve of outside powers, especially those in the region.
When the summit in Mali ended, however, the fast-moving events took another turn the dictator hadn’t anticipated. Barrow was invited to wait out the final days of the transition in Senegal while regional powers mobilized troops in the name of ECOWAS. This exacerbated the pervading fear of a war looming, leading more people to join the thousands who were fleeing the metropolitan areas for the provinces and the border into Senegal. The president-elect was criticized by some for abandoning ship in a critical moment. But the critics got it wrong. Barrow staying away was the most prudent decision for several factors. His safety and life as the president-elect were essential to any transfer of power based on the election. And neither could be guaranteed as long as he was within the reach of a vindictive dictator looking to exploit any means of subverting the will of the people. Had Barrow attempted to take the oath of office in the country, especially at the Independence Stadium as planned, without foreign troops on the ground to provide the necessary security, who could tell what the dictator might try to do out of sheer desperation or spite? The downsides of the risks were too great for Barrow and, more importantly, for the country.
The regional powers flexed their military muscles by assembling an invading force. The ECOWAS Military Intervention in The Gambia (ECOMIG) comprised mostly of Nigerian and Senegalese troops to remove the dictator if he wouldn’t relinquish power. But even with the presence of ECOMIG force at the border and stern ultimatums from relevant international bodies, Yahya Jammeh did what he had been best at for two decades. Midnight struck on January 18th, the deadline for the end of his five-year term, and he refused to step down. He literally told the world to go to hell.
It was finally the moment of truth for the resolve of outside powers he had been defying for a month and a half about the election, and long before that on a litany of other issues.
The ECOMIG troops, including Nigerian navy and air force, expected no fierce resistance from the dictator’s army most of whom served more out of fear than loyalty to him. But the 7000 invading force didn’t cross the border just yet. As much as the regional powers couldn’t wait to see the dictator dislodged, ECOWAS wanted incontrovertible legal authority for the military operation to avoid, among other things, setting a new precedent for intervention in the internal conflicts of member states.
Several hours later, the most significant episode of the sorry saga of the transition took place at The Gambian embassy in Senegal. Adama Barrow took the oath of office as the third President of The Gambia. Though the embassy qualified as a Gambian territory under international law, there was something painfully small and sad about the historic event that should have been celebrated with ceremony and fanfare in the country. The pitiful somberness of the occasion made Yahya Jammeh’s malevolence and pettiness all the more hurtful and unforgivable.
On officially becoming the head of state, Adama Barrow could now formally request help for military action against the dictator-turned-rebel. That was some slight consolation. ECOWAS still sought and secured unanimous UN Security Council resolution to install Barrow in power. And finally, the troops got their orders to cross the border.
Yahya Jammeh’s big gamble ended up being a big fail. He had underestimated the contempt and loathing regional leaders reserved for him. In addition to that, he had underestimated Ghana’s readiness for a payback for the murder of scores of their citizens by his suspected goons. He had underestimated Nigeria’s preparedness to preempt a political crisis in a small nation in the region from metastasizing into another violent conflict that would require much costlier intervention on their part as the regional superpower. But most of all, he had underestimated Senegal’s determination to eliminate him as their worst external national security threat for providing MFDC separatist guerrillas with materiel and sanctuary. Yahya Jammeh’s arrogance of power and villainy caught up with him at last. And being a friendless narcissist among heads of state, none of his more respectable fellows so much as bothered to speak up for him. His loss was The Gambia’s gain regardless of almost anyone who was the president-elect. Adama Barrow didn’t create the conditions for intervention. That’s all Yahya Jammeh’s doing. He was responsible for Barrow’s improbable political rise from nomination to election to intervention.
As ECOMIG troops under the command of a Senegalese general stormed the border with Nigeria enforcing naval blockade and providing air support, the dictator vowed to take them on in a showdown to defend national sovereignty. All he wanted was to risk the lives of his soldiers for a futile cause. When they defied his command to fight and die for him, he ran to the phone pleading to save himself under the guise of a negotiated settlement. Two days later, when he was shown the dignity and mercy he had denied so many, he flew into exile in Equatorial Guinea.
The impasse finally passed. The country burst again with euphoria even though the chaos the dictator had set in motion during the transition and the wider ramifications of his time in power didn’t end with his departure. The hope was that Adama Barrow would make a clean break from the corruption, malfeasance, and other abuses of power. Was this optimism mostly wishful thinking?