On 1st December there was an election held in The Gambia which pitted incumbent President Yahya Jammeh against Adama Barrow, a former property developer. The results came in and Jammeh, who had originally taken power in a military coup in 1994, lost the election. Initially, and much to everybody’s surprise, Jammeh accepted the result and said he was going to peacefully transfer power to the President-elect. However this conciliatory mood didn’t last and on 9th December he formally disputed the election result by submitted an application to the Gambian Supreme Court that people should start paying attention to the small West African republic.
In the press people may be aware of Jammeh because of his bizarre ideas about alternative medicine. For example, Jammeh once claimed that HIV/AIDS could be cured with herbal remedies and actually encouraged people with HIV to stop taking their anti-retroviral drugs. Whilst that makes him a colourful character to say the least, he has also pursued policies that fill most socially well-adjusted people with total revulsion. In the past Jammeh has described LGBT people as “vermin”, actively persecuted journalists who have criticised his barbaric practices, and unilaterally declared The Gambia as an Islamic republic.
On Monday evening the Gambia’s press union said that the army has shut down two private radio stations that were critical of Jammeh’s government. In a statement to the BBC the head of The Gambia Press Union Emil Touray said that the closure of Hilltop Radio and Teranga FM was “a slap in the face for democracy”. I don’t think that anyone can really disagree. Jammeh is trying to cling to power despite losing a democratic election and is attempting to silence anyone who disagrees.
This isn’t especially surprising as Jammeh has spent the last 20 years clamping down on opposition, but the fallout from the election may spiral out of control. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has said that if Jammeh doesn’t step aside by 19th January, which should be the day of Barrow’s inauguration, ECOWAS member-states led by Senegal shall remove Jammeh from power. Because Jammeh is a strongman his was as could be expected and he has said that any such action by ECOWAS would be a declaration of war.
What is unsettling is that yesterday Gambia’s highest ranking army officer, General Ousman Badjie, gave his full backing to President Jammeh. Given that militaries work on the basis of not questioning commanding officers, the top general of the Gambian army saying that the military will support Jammeh and try to defend the President from an ECOWAS invasion is alarming. Unless there was mass desertion from rank-and-file soldiers, it appears that military conflict may well be on the cards.
Next week Jammeh’s complaint to the Gambian Supreme Court will be considered and nobody is sure which way the decision will go. According to ECOWAS and other organisations on the ground the election was free and fair however judges may demand a rerun on the vote to prevent reprisals from Jammeh’s supporters. It is imperative that people from across the world raise awareness about this ongoing crisis.
We could well see the start of a full-on war in West Africa over the election result and but if the international community came together to isolate Jammeh and his government his government will fall. The UN needs to get involved and ensure the peaceful transition of powers because he world doesn’t need another war started by another power-hungry despot.If West Africa is engulfed by war the implications for other areas of policy- terrorism, poverty, disease, refugee flows etc.- will be significant. The international community needs to take an active role in ensuring Jammeh is removed from office, and if that means the UN providing tactical support to the Senegalese military then so be it. The Gambian people have spoken and their decision must be respected.