Military intervention possible as Gambian president refuses to step down

Published On : Monday, December 19 2016

Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh has been warned he faces "strong sanctions" and even military intervention if he continues to insist on remaining in power despite losing the election.

The United Nations and fellow African leaders have all voiced dismay at Mr Jammeh’s refusal to accept the result of December 1 election, which he lost to rival Adama Barrow.

"For Mr Jammeh, the end is here and under no circumstances can he continue to be president," said Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the UN’s special representative for West Africa, after a meeting with other West African leaders failed to come up with a transition plan. When asked whether military intervention was an option following the failed mediation mission, he said: "It may not be necessary. Let’s cross that bridge when we get there."

On Tuesday, Gambian security forces blockaded the offices of the country’s electoral commission, a move denounced by UN chief Ban Ki-moon as an "outrageous act of disrespect".

Mr Jammeh is now challenging the election in the Gambian supreme court, which some fear is a precursor to a coup — the method he used to take power in 1994. The atmosphere in Banjul, the capital, is tense as troops pile up sandbags at crossroads.

For anyone hoping that 21st-century Africa might have rid itself of old-school strongmen, Mr Jammeh is a reminder that in some places, nothing much has changed. From his fondness for witchcraft and a dreadful human rights record through to his sunglasses and stretch Hummer limo, he is a living cliche of the eccentric dictator — a man who makes his late friend Muammar Qaddafi look almost restrained.

After 22 years of ruling his tiny west African fiefdom with an iron fist, Mr Jammeh appeared to depart from standard despot behaviour by conceding graciously to Mr Barrow. Then, with the capriciousness that only someone who calls himself "Excellency Sheikh Professor Doctor President" can muster, he abruptly changed his mind. After praising the election as "the most transparent in the world," he now claims the count was flawed and is demanding a rerun.

Lest any of Gambia’s two million people think it was perhaps His Excellency’s idea of a joke, he also used the speech to warn that any street protests against his decision were banned.

As with any leader who governs as a one-man state, the only person who really knows why Mr Jammeh changed his mind is Mr Jammeh himself. One theory is that he was spooked by a threat last week by the opposition to prosecute him for human rights abuses. Another is that he was simply so shocked by the people’s rejection that it took him a while to gather his senses again.

Mr Barrow’s David and Goliath victory cheered the world earlier this month. Now many worry that Goliath might win after all, and the president-elect — a little-known businessman who once worked as a security guard at a London department store — fears he may be thrown in jail at any moment by forces loyal to Mr Jammeh.

Being a dictator is not as easy it was, however. Most leaders in West Africa are democrats who will no longer stand by when strongmen seize or hang on to power. The elected presidents of Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana paid Mr Jammeh a visit on Tuesday, politely requesting that he honour his pledge to step down.

Pictures of the meeting showed the five heads of state drinking tea in the official presidential parlour, which is adorned by a life-size portrait of its current occupant. But behind the smiles, teeth were being bared. Mr Jammeh was told that unless he agreed to clear his parlour forthwith and take his giant portrait with him, he would face, at the very least, sanctions on him and his inner circle. The chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) have also warned separately that if Mr Jammeh does not go quietly, a regional military force could ultimately be sent in to depose him. The delegation will resume talks on Saturday.

Whether Mr Jammeh pays them any heed is another matter. This, after all, is a leader who has made a career out of claiming that nobody bosses him around. Two months ago, for example, he withdrew from the International Criminal Court, denouncing it as the International "Caucasian" Court. And in May, he told both Amnesty International and Mr Ban to "go to hell" for demanding an inquiry over an opposition leader beaten to death in custody.

Mr Jammeh’s key calculation, though, is whether he still has the loyalty of his hand-picked presidential guard. They may run to no more than a few hundred, but in a country that has at most just a few thousand men at arms anyway, they could easily impose their will on the rest — especially if, like Mr Jammeh, some of them fear being put in the dock themselves.

There are already signs of apparent intimidation. After the elections, the head of the army, General Ousman Badjie, called Mr Barrow to pledge his allegiance. This week, he was more circumspect, saying, "I support the commander in chief, whoever it may be".

One other explanation for Mr Jammeh’s troublemaking is that it is simply a ruse to get another country to offer him sanctuary. That could be either a neighbouring African state, or somewhere further afield like Saudi Arabia, which already hosts the ousted Tunisian dictator, Zein Al Abidin Ben Ali. Diplomats have hinted that this could be acceptable as a short-term measure — especially if, long-term, Mr Jammeh might still face prosecution in a regional court.

This would hardly be popular with those who have languished in his jail cells — but with Gambia now facing either more years under Mr Jammeh’s grip or a slide into bloodshed, justice may just have to wait.