Monday,12 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Monday,12 November, 2018
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Concerns in Gambia

There are growing concerns that the political transition may not take place as planned in Gambia, following the refusal of sitting President Yahya Jammeh to step down, writes Haitham Nouri

 Concerns in Gambia
Concerns in Gambia

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced that it would be taking a “major decision” regarding the ongoing crisis in Gambia triggered by President Yahya Jammeh rejecting the result of presidential elections he lost in early December.

“We want to present a diplomatic solution to the problem,” said Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Saturday. “We are calling on the Gambian people to follow the successful example of Ghana by accepting the rule of democracy.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Sirleaf was speaking at the inauguration of Ghana’s new President Nana Akufo-Addo, sworn in a ceremony in the capital Accra that was attended by West African leaders who also held an ECOWAS Summit to discuss the crisis in Gambia.

The organisation announced that it had prepared military units from member states to go to Gambia under the command of neighbouring Senegal if Jammeh did not abide by the results of the 1 December election and leave office on 19 January.

Jammeh, who has ruled Gambia with an iron fist since a coup in 1994, said the declaration was a “hostile act” against his country and swore to “defend himself and Gambia” from any foreign intervention.

Sirleaf denied that ECOWAS intended to send troops to Gambia when responding to a question about whether the organisation would use force. “We want to keep the peace in the region,” she said, adding that ECOWAS was closely monitoring the progress of a lawsuit filed by the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction Party led by Jammeh against the country’s Independent Elections Commission.

Liberia is chair of ECOWAS, which includes 15 member states from West Africa.

“A major decision will be taken regarding the crisis,” commented Garba Shehu, spokesman for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “As chairman of the mediation team, President Buhari has vowed to find a solution” to the crisis in Gambia, he added.

A delegation of ECOWAS leaders including the presidents of Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana and Sierra Leone earlier headed to the Gambian capital Banjul to convince Jammeh to accept the results of the presidential elections. So far Jammeh has shown little sign of stepping down, but ECOWAS leaders believe the deadline will be 19 January when newly elected president Adama Barrow is due to take office.

The crisis in Gambia erupted after the Elections Commission announced that former real-estate agent Barrow, the nominee of the country’s opposition bloc, had won the elections by more than 45 per cent of the votes.

Surprisingly, Jammeh at first accepted the result, even going on Gambian television to tell his victorious rival that “the Gambian people have spoken” and wish him “good luck.”

However, one week later Jammeh said he would reject the result, claiming electoral fraud and “serious and unacceptable” violations during the electoral process and demanding new elections.

Within days, Head of the Elections Commission Alieu Momar Njai had left the country “in fear of my life,” he told Reuters.

Njai is not the only one who is afraid. Gambia is a country of fear ruled by a temperamental dictator who in 2006 announced he had the ability to heal AIDS patients. He also ordered a campaign to hunt down what he described as “magicians” — a move criticised by the international rights group Amnesty International in 2009, which accused the regime of abducting hundreds of people on groundless charges.

Jammeh’s regime has been strongly criticised by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) groups around the world after he told a gathering of his supporters in 2008 that he would personally decapitate “any homosexual” in Gambia.

In 2013, Jammeh withdrew Gambia from the British Commonwealth, states which were once under British colonial rule, severing all ties to British colonialism in Gambia that lasted 80 years until the country’s independence in 1965.

In order to compensate for the country’s isolation, Jammeh last year declared Gambia to be an officially Muslim nation in order to benefit from Gulf funding. However, this funding does not seem to have materialised, despite a conspicuous Arab presence in neighbouring Senegal.

Observers believe the step came after the Nigerian navy intercepted a ship carrying Iranian weapons to Gambia to be smuggled to armed elements in Nigeria. In response, Abuja put pressure on Banjul until the latter severed ties with Tehran.

Gambia has thus severed its ties to Britain and has had a tense relationship with its neighbours, especially after Jammeh recruited mercenaries from the Senegalese separatist province of Casamance into the Gambian army.

This upset Dakar, a heavyweight in the African Union. It is this army of mercenaries and the country’s judiciary that includes foreigners from Nigeria, Pakistan and other countries on the Supreme Court that is now believed to be propping up the Jammeh regime.

Gambian army officers at risk of prosecution also support Jammeh, and an aide to president-elect Barrow has said that the new administration intends to investigate “all the crimes that were committed in the country” under Jammeh’s rule when it takes office, including those said to have been committed by army officers.

Jammeh and his camp of officers and state officials are not the only ones worried by the upcoming planned transition of power. Barrow and his supporters in the opposition are also concerned about the situation unravelling in the face of an unpredictable dictator.

West African leaders are nervous about matters deteriorating in Gambia, the smallest country in the region, as this could destabilise Senegal and impact the already unstable larger region. The instability includes confrontations with the terrorist group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin, radical groups in Mali, and terrorists in southern Algeria and Libya.

The latter two countries are not ECOWAS members, but they are influential in the region.

The army is the key to a solution in Gambia because it can guarantee stability. Therefore, many observers say that ECOWAS must reach out to army officers in Gambia if a peaceful transfer of power is to take place.

Jammeh ousted former president Dawda Jawara, the leader of the country’s independence movement, who was prime minister between 1965 and 1970 and then president until Jammeh’s coup.

The army’s demand is that officers must be given amnesty from prosecution in return for abandoning Jammeh. However, this would weaken the opposition before it takes over power, especially since many opposition supporters want to see those said to be responsible for two decades of extrajudicial killings, detentions, kidnappings and torture put on trial.

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