The Yahya Jammeh Problem — Reuben Abati

The Yahya Jammeh Problem — 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

       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.