The Yahya Jammeh problem
By Reuben Abati
When President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia conceded defeat after the December 1 presidential elections in that West African country of 1.9 million people, the gesture was widely hailed and described as an indication of great hope for democracy in Africa and particularly for The Gambia, which Jammeh had ruled with an iron fist for 22 years. That election was also perhaps the most important political development in The Gambia in 52 years – the first change of government through democratic elections.
The winner of the Presidential election, Adama Barrow, was the product of a coalition of opposition parties who provided the platform for the people’s yearning for change. Adama Barrow (the British press should please stop referring to him condescendingly as a former Argos’ security guard!), became the symbol of the people’s hopes, and of freedom from Jammeh’s tyrannical rule that was benchmarked by its brutality, love of witchcraft and human rights abuses. Jammeh’s concession made it seem as if all his past sins would be forgiven.
But on December 9, he made a volte-face going on state television to say he could no longer accept the results of the election and that he had decided to annul the results. It is alleged that Jammeh may have resorted to this because of an alleged missing 365, 000 votes and the adjustment of the final results by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) which showed that Adama Barrow had won with less than 20, 000 votes, hence Jammeh cited “unacceptable errors” which had come to light. This, if of any consequence at all, seems contrived.
If Jammeh as candidate in the election has any grouse, the appropriate place to seek redress is in court, and the Gambian Constitution provides for a 10-day window within which to file a petition. That 10-day period of grace expires today. By annulling the election single-handedly without recourse to the courts (the promise to do so by his party, the APRC, is an after-thought), Jammeh is guilty of an assault on the sovereignty of the Gambian people. His conduct is objectionable and should be considered an act of high treason. Jammeh suffers from the delusion that his love of power and personal ambition is more important than the stability and progress of his country. The people’s will as confidently expressed on December 1 is supreme. Jammeh should be made to realize that he is just another citizen and that The Gambia is not his personal estate.
The African Union, ECOWAS and the UN Security Council as well as the international community in general have condemned the infamy that Jammeh is seeking to foist on his people. But the AU and ECOWAS should take the lead in coming to the rescue of The Gambian people. The long-term objective, in case Yahya Jammeh does not relent, is to invoke the Constitutive Acts and Principles of both bodies on democratic transition and thus “criminalize” any further attempt by Jammeh to violate the democratic process. We appreciate the fact that ECOWAS leaders: chairperson Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and the Presidents of Nigeria (Muhammadu Buhari), Sierra Leone (Ernest Bai Koroma), Ghana (John Dramani Mahama) and Guinea (Alpha Conde) are in fact meeting with President Jammeh today in Banjul. They will also meet with opposition coalition leaders. The primary task of that team should be to bring all parties concerned to the negotiating table, insist on the supremacy of the people’s will and advise Yahya Jammeh to obey the rule of law.
It is possible that he would refuse to listen. Before now, this Gambian anti-hero has shown a capacity to defy the international community. He once turned himself into a herbal doctor and claimed he had found a cure for HIV/AIDS. In 2013, he pulled his country out of the Commonwealth. He is also opposed to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ironically, the current chief prosecutor of the ICC is a Gambian, Fatou Bensouda.
Yahya Jammeh is also an incurable megalomaniac, given his love of titles: H.E. Sheikh Prof. Dr. Alhaji President Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa. On many occasions, he wanted to be Chairman of the ECOWAS, but his colleague-Presidents always turned him down in favour of much junior Presidents who met him in office. For a while he shunned many international engagements, sending his Vice President instead. To be fair to him though, he is not as stupid as he is made to appear internationally and he has probably realized that the game is up. But could Yahya Jammeh be playing a game, to negotiate, to gain amnesty?
His relapse out of that moment of lucidity that saw him conceding defeat on December 2 may well have been caused not by his claim of “unacceptable errors”, but fear. The Gambian situation may end up providing special lessons in how triumphant opposition parties should manage victory in order not to provoke a succession crisis. Dictators in general are afraid of what will happen to them when they are no longer in power and hence, many of them hang on to office until they die or they are disgraced out. While the antidote to this is good governance, it is also pragmatic to situate certain responses within the context of post-election realities.
In The Gambia, the post-election situation has been poorly managed. Jammeh and Barrow have met only once since the election was won and lost. They are practically not on speaking terms. The opposition, apparently due to lack of knowledge and tact, has also been busy threatening to deal with Jammeh as soon as he hands over power. Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, who led the victorious coalition has been busy taunting Jammeh. She is a perfect illustration of how much damage reckless windbaggery can do to opposition politics.
Madame Fatoumata says Jammeh will be prosecuted. Gambia will rejoin the International Criminal Court and Jammeh will be sent to The Hague for trial. Jammeh says he’d like to retire to his farm in his native Kanilai, Madame says he will not be allowed to do so, because he has “bunkers and treasure” there and enough weapons to start an insurrection. He won’t even be allowed to go abroad. “He can’t leave. If he leaves, he’s going to escape us”, she says. And she adds: “we don’t trust him. The longer we leave him, the more possibilities he has to leave the country to escape the country and even do an insurgency…Senegal is very alert. Nobody trusts him…” She further referred to Jammeh’s wife as a “gold-digger” who should be put on trial and jailed. It is precisely this kind of reckless post-election rhetoric that threatens peaceful ruling-party-to-opposition-transition in Africa. Fatoumata Jallow-Tambalang’s tactlessness has to be managed. She and Samsudeen Sarr should shut up, at least for now!
Yahya Jammeh’s response has just been as vengeful. He quickly promoted loyal officers in the military and got the military hierarchy to recant. He also sent soldiers onto the streets of Banjul and Serekunda and other parts of the country to subdue an already frightened populace. He had admitted the result of the Presidential election as the “will of Allah”, but now he is relying on his own will to protect and preserve himself. The early exposure of the mind of the opposition has driven Jammeh back into the trap of tyranny and unless the situation is well managed, we may have a serious crisis in The Gambia with a well-resourced dictator turned rebel. What is playing out in The Gambia right now is a two-way politics of vengeance, which leaves both the people and the governance process stranded. Getting the country out of that logjam should be the main remit of the ECOWAS mission.
The ECOWAS leaders visiting Banjul must engage The Gambian military hierarchy. Jammeh is in the process of using them to carry out another coup. His first coup was against Dawda Jawara, 22 years ago, the current effort is designed as a coup against the people and the opposition. And even if he does not get away with it, he is determined to plant enough problems that would make The Gambia impossible to govern after his exit.
Right now, The Gambian military has lost its mind. Chief of Defence Staff General Ousman Badjie endorsed the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election and pledged loyalty to the people and the elected in-coming government, but after the bribery of military promotions, the same CDS started insisting on another election. A divided, psychopathic military is a serious problem to any country. We saw that in Guinea-Bissau and Mali. The ECOWAS team must make it clear to The Gambian military leaders that there will be no regional backing for any act of lunacy.
ECOWAS has its own problems. Oftentimes, ECOWAS leaders succumb to unnecessary compromises. They should not return from The Gambia with any unholy compromise. Yahya Jammeh lost the election on December 1. He boasted before then that any election in The Gambia is “rig-proof” and “fraud-proof”. In four previous elections, he won with a landslide. Now, all of a sudden, elections conducted under him are no longer “rig-proof”. He should pack out of the Presidential Villa and allow The Gambia to move on without him. He is the latest victim of coalition opposition politics in Africa. His defeat should send a clear message to the other sit-tight, royalist leaders across the continent. The long-term solution to the Yahya Jammeh problem should be the introduction of a Constitutional term limit for The Gambian Presidency to prevent Jammeh from ruling as he once claimed for “one billion years!”
Above all, Yahya Jammeh is a spoilsport. He jumped out of his moment of lucidity just when we were celebrating the good news from Ghana. John Mahama is Ghana’s first one-term democratically elected President since 1992, but he has been gallant in defeat and most gracious. There is no chance he will behave like Jammeh. He is educated. He has a good head. He is a thinker and a writer. He certainly has a brighter future ahead of him.
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