Gambians in a dilemma over fate of Jammeh

From right: Presidents Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria at a hotel lobby in the Gambian capital Banjul ahead of their meeting with President Yahya Jammeh on December 13, 2016. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

President Yahya Jammeh’s decision to rescind his concession to electoral defeat has plunged Gambia into a state of confusion.

Gambians have been left guessing about the future, amidst growing apprehension over a looming military intervention.

President Jammeh, in a televised telephone conversation with opposition politician Adama Barrow, conceded defeat on December 2 following a closely fought election a day before.

But the former military leader rejected the outcome a few days later, citing irregularities he blamed on the electoral commission he single handedly constituted and bankrolled.

Gambians joyfully celebrated the outcome, even if briefly.

People inside the country, for the first time in a long period, openly posted on social media criticising the government.

Popular views

Video footages of jubilant youth tearing off giant posters bearing the president’s image in the streets of Serekunda, the largest city in the country, were still popular views on social media.

But the celebrations soon turned to calls for justice, that have been blamed for the killing or at least delaying the hope for a New Gambia.

Even among supporters of the winning opposition coalition, there has emerged a disagreement over how to handle the outgoing president.

Some people who vehemently advocated justice a few weeks ago, have suddenly toned down, arguing that fear of persecution might have caused President Jammeh to change his mind.

Words like 'prosecution' and 'justice' have suddenly been replaced with 'reconciliation' and 'forgiveness'.

Mandate ends

The effort by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to persuade Jammeh to step down has degenerated into a war of words between him and officials of the regional bloc.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was quoted on Tuesday warning that President Jammeh had a last chance to leave peacefully.

It followed a failed attempt by a delegation of four West African heads of states, including President Buhari himself, to convince the defeated leader to go after meetings in Banjul last week.

An Ecowas Summit in the Nigerian capital, Abuja over the weekend issued a strongly-worded communique threatening action if Jammeh failed to hand over on January 18, when his constitutional mandate ends.

And last Tuesday evening, a defiant Jammeh hit back.

In a meeting with representatives of the African Bar Association, he said the action by Ecowas went against its own founding charter of non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries, and he vowed to resist any such move.

"I am a man of peace but that does not mean I will not defend my country courageously, patriotically and win," he said.

President Yahya Jammeh. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Meanwhile, on the streets in Banjul and Serekunda, the scene increasingly resembles a war zone, with armed military and police personnel positioned at strategic places.

Some reports suggest that the military has even dug trenches and positioned sandbags as though in readiness for war

There are reports that people living near the border with Senegal have been seen crossing over to the other side.

The election, the fifth since 1994 when Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup, ended a 22-year rule characterised by a mixed bag of realities.

President Jammeh’s supporters praise him for transforming the country with a population of less than two million from the “Stone Age” [his own words] to a modern nation state. Much of his development is illustrated by the massive infrastructural development visible across the country.

Before 1994, Gambia, which is almost surrounded by its neighbour Senegal and known mostly for its export of groundnut, had no university or a TV station, for instance.

A huge cost

President Jammeh built roads, hospitals and many schools.

But this development came at a huge cost of civil liberties.

Opponents of the regime and human rights groups speak of a culture of intimidation, torture, extra judicial killing, and forced disappearances of critics and perceived opponents.

There was a long list of alleged victims of the two decades of brutal repression circulating on social media. On this list, compiled by a US-based Gambian author, many are journalists, who the president once declared as enemies of the state and vowed to jail or kill if they stepped feet on the Gambian soil.

On December 16, the media fraternity celebrated the 12th year anniversary of the death of one of the country’s best known journalists – Deyda Hydara.

Mr Hydara was a thorn in the flesh of the new Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) at the time. He vehemently campaigned, using the pages of his, The Point newspaper, to have the military restore democratic rule and return to the barracks. Beyond recognition

He was gunned down in broad daylight as he drove home from work.

There was also the case of the young, intelligent Finance minister, Mr Koro Ceesay. In 1995, Mr Ceesay, a civilian Cabinet minister, had reportedly differed with the junta leadership over the content of his budget speech that year. His car mysteriously caught fire and his body was burnt beyond recognition.

In 2012, Jammeh infamously ordered the execution of nine death row inmates “to set example” in light of increase in alleged coups against his regime.

Pressure from the international community forced the government to deny the executions. But it soon became clear that it happened. And among those found to have been executed were a man who was said to be under psychiatric evaluation.

Last month, an absconded former minister and close ally of the president who is seeking asylum in Sweden reportedly told authorities there that one of the nine executed inmates, a Senegalese woman convict, had her body fed to crocodiles kept at the president’s private farm in his home village of Kanilai.

Gambi: A slither of country surrounded by Senegal

Reports on dissident media outlets were replete with more horrible narratives of such extra judicial killings, torture and forced disappearances.

The unanswered questions around these were clear reasons for President Jammeh not to want to step down, said analysts.

"Justice and reconciliation is the chief guarantee for a new Gambia that upholds the principles of democracy and rule of law,” says Mr Ibraheem Ceesay, one of the Gambians calling for justice.

Mr Ceesay was declared wanted by the government when he openly criticised the death of an opposition activist early this year, which sparked widespread protests and mass arrests of opposition leaders in the run up to the elections.

He said in an interview with the Africa Review that while Jammeh should be hailed for his development strides, he should answer to crimes associated with his regime.
Mr Barrow, a member of Gambia’s largest opposition political party – UDP – was backed by seven other political parties to pull off one of the biggest electoral shocks in the world this year, from Nigeria to US and lately Ghana.

Even though senior officials of the Coalition for Change, as the opposition alliance is called, have said they never discussed the fate of the outgoing president, an interview by a leading member of the group has been blamed for provoking his fears.

Three key decisions

Mrs Fatoumata Jalloh-Tambajang, the influential woman credited with bringing together the opposition for the first time in 20 years of trial and failure, in an interview with the UK-based Guardian newspaper, said they intended to try President Jammeh and recover all stolen properties belonging to the states.

A previous interview by Mr Barrow in which he indicated he was going to reverse three key decisions taken by the current administration within the last two years – cancelation of Gambia’s membership at the ICC and Commonwealth, and the

Islamisation of the nation – has been described by analysts as a serious miscalculation.

When he made his shocking televised address rejecting the election outcome, President Jammeh never made mention of his fate. But he cited the attitude of supporters of the winning candidates against his own supporters.

Last week, in one of several meetings he has called since his defeat, the president reiterated that point to an inter religious group, further citing insults rained on his elderly mother, among other concerns, he felt were a threat to national security.

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