The post-electoral impasse in the Gambia

Published: 14 Dec 2016
By: Djibril Balde with Kristof Orlans

A week after accepting defeat in the Gambia’s 1 December polls, President Yahya Jammeh, in an extraordinary volte-face, rejected the results of the presidential election and ordered soldiers to take control of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), throwing the country into uncertainty. Today anxiety and disarray prevails in the minds of many Gambians as they worry what will happen if Jammeh refuses to hand over power.

Everyone was surprised by the results of the 1 December presidential election, which unseated President Jammeh, and the president’s concession to the opposition candidate, Adama Barrow, shortly thereafter. After 22 years in power, President Jammeh took 36.66% of the vote, losing to the opposition coalition which pulled in 45.54%. The third party candidate, Mama Kandeh, a former ruling party MP standing for the Gambian Democratic Congress (GDC), may have played a game changing role, pulling in 17.80%, drawn largely from those who might otherwise have voted for President Jammeh. By turning out to vote, Gambians freely, peacefully and democratically expressed their desire for a change of leadership – but they are now unsure about the outcome of that action.

In his announcement, Jammeh said that the elections were to be annulled and new elections were to be organised. The Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, a Gambian based non-governmental organisation denounced Jammeh’s decision saying that the only legal means of challenging the results was to bring a petition in court.

Jammeh’s political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), meanwhile, announced that it will file a complaint to the Supreme Court against the IEC alleging  irregularities and demanding a new round of voting. While under normal conditions, a judicial petition would be the appropriate way to handle allegations of irregularities, the situation in Gambia is complicated by the fact that there is no sitting Supreme Court. The Gambia Bar Association criticised the suggestion that Jammeh’s party would file a petition in court, noting that additional judges would need to be empanelled to hear the case and that “it would be against the principles of natural justice for the outgoing President to appoint Supreme Court Judges to hear a Petition filed by him or on his behalf.”

A Gambian human rights defender who spoke to IRRI said “the fact that Jammeh rejects the results is unacceptable. I am really shocked about the ongoing situation in the Gambia. Jammeh wants to destabilise the Gambia and make it ungovernable before leaving. Today Gambians can only rely on the international community so that handover the power to Adama Borrow who is the legitimate President Jammeh must respect the will of the people.”

Dissent against the regime has been growing. In April, the turnout at peaceful protests organised by the opposition showed the level of opposition to the current regime. When authorities responded by arresting leaders, they solidified public sentiment against the regime. Exiled journalist Alhagie Jobe, quoted by IRIN speaking from Dakar, Senegal said “People were ready for change, but knowing the type of person President Jammeh is, they did not believe that he would concede defeat without contesting the results. Hopes were not high for a peaceful transfer of power.”

These hopes were raised until Jammeh rejected the result, with many Gambians, both at home and living as refugees in Senegal celebrating Jammeh’s defeat. One such refugee said: “I was very happy when I learned the defeat of President Jammeh. Gambians have suffered greatly during the reign of President Jammeh, he has terrorised a whole nation, today Gambia is liberated from the dictator, a new era is beginning. I am preparing to return to go back home after spending many years in exile.”

Gambians had begun to look forward to the actions of the new regime, which (if it comes to power) will face a heavy task of reorganising the country. Thousands have fled the country because of President Jammeh’s repression. Massive human rights violations have been committed, including restrictions of freedom of expression and assembly, arbitrary arrests, torture, targeted killings, forced disappearances, kidnappings, etc.

For now, however, the focus is on negotiating a way out of the impasse. Senegal through its foreign minister reacted quickly to vigorously denounce Jammeh’s decision and demanding that the president unconditionally respect the democratic choice of the Gambian people and organise a peaceful transition of power. The US has also criticised  the move as an “unacceptable breach of faith with the people of The Gambia.” The AU Peace and Security Council also stated that it “strongly rejects any attempt to circumvent or reverse the outcome of the presidential election … a clear expression of the popular will and choice of the Gambian people” and called on Jammeh to “keep to the letter and spirit of his speech delivered on 2 December 2016”.

Other leaders, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are taking more direct action. A delegation of four heads of state led by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and including Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and John Dramni Mahama of Ghana have arrived in Banjul to negotiate with Jammeh.

It is vital that the international community take urgent and effective measures to compel Jammeh to handover the power in order to avoid public actions which could lead to harsh government responses, bloodshed and forced displacement.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement, Rights in Exile
Regions: Western Africa, Gambia
Type: IRRI Blog, Library