The Gambia had been ruled by Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who served initially as prime minister then as the republic’s first president, for more than 30 years.
The country’s main political party was the People’s Progressive Party [PPP]. From the mid-1960s to the early ’90s the country was relatively quite stable and citizens accepted the status quo. Gambians were very proud of their country and had no will for political change. Peace was plentiful. The country was safe.
But since the July 1994 overthrow of Jawara — the legitimate president, re-elected in 1992 — by then army Lt. Yahya Jammeh, the country has become confused, more corrupt and paralyzed by one person.
The nation recently conducted an election which, as usual, Jammeh was expected to win easily — his confidence in winning again this time likely stemmed from the fact he’d jailed his main opposition, Oinou Darboeusa, for protesting on the street before the election. In fact, President Jammeh was accused, regularly, of rigging elections (including by Darboe, who’d lost to Jammeh in 2011).
Jammeh got the surprise of his life after the Dec. 1 general elections. He at first congratulated his opponent, Adama Barrow, and offered advice, but Jammeh later changed his mind and has since refused to hand over the presidency. The struggle continues.
Augustine Kanjia, who spent years uncovering corruption as a refugee journalist in Gambia during Jammeh’s rule, examines what Jammeh might be thinking, what’s next for the West African nation, and how America’s electoral issues pale in comparison to those in Gambia.
The people of Gambia for 22 years have been living in fear under President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh, who has earned the title Dictator. Who dares to talk loud where one is never sure if the person next to you is a government informant? Year after year, Gambians have become more fearful of Jammeh. When his name is heard on the streets, many look over their shoulders.
He has manifested a typically corrupt African leader. Everyone is aware of his dishing out money to win people over, especially leading up to elections.
About six months before this past election, Jammeh had rounded up several members of the United Democratic Party [UDP], including Darboe, for protesting. They were lucky — in the past Jammeh ordered his police to shoot and kill protesters. The president wanted to keep Darboe from challenging him in another election, but such actions began to bring togetherness that saw him crumble and succumb to defeat.
The election was well contested and Jammeh’s support was turning against him. He had fired the Independent Election Commission [IEC] chairman, Mustapha Carayol, but his handpicked stooge, Alieu Momar Njai, proved a poor choice: he, too, was secretly against the hanging on to power by Jammeh.
Jammeh was becoming too powerful, indeed, with his hands in nearly all the banks, businesses, abattoirs [slaughterhouses], bread shops, animal farms, rice farms. Darboe and fellow UDP leader Femi Peters, among many others in and out of prison, kept preaching the truth to save the Gambian people. Did intimidation bother them? No! Their imprisonment brought Jammeh down to his knees in shame. He was a demagogue revered by his admirers. Many who cling to him became rich or got good jobs during his rule.
With UDP leaders — including Jammeh’s chief presidential opponent, Darboe — in jail as the election neared, remaining members rallied behind Halifa Sallah and others to come up with one candidate to tackle Jammeh and his APRC [Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction] party. They did their work well, marching from village to village talking to tribal leaders and positively influencing citizens. They were united, and their new candidate, Adama Barrow, would serve for only three years (with Vice President-elect Sallah), they said, then accede his position to the next freely elected president.
Then, on Dec. 2, Jammeh woke up wondering how he would face the Gambian people after this unanticipated failure.
The opposition had tightened its campaigns. And it was a third-party candidate, Mammah Kandeh, whose 89,768 votes chipped away at former Jammeh strongholds. Barrow won with 43.3 percent (222,708) of the vote to Jammeh’s 39.6 percent (208,487) and Kandeh’s 17.1 percent.
Jammeh has found it difficult to succumb — to the newly elected, the electoral commissioner, or international leaders. Njai appealed to the American ambassador to The Gambia, who in turn called Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, and Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former UN secretary general, to convince Jammeh to listen to the will of the people. Jammeh at first staged a cordial conversation with his conqueror, urging Barrow to take cognizance of the diversity that exists. Let no one bring division, Jammeh reportedly told him.
Instead of planning to leave and hand over power to Barrow, Jammeh then publicly denounced the result on GRTS, the nation’s only TV station. That was the beginning of a big problem for the poor country. His pronouncement was shocking and fearful. Jammeh, as usual, has become very defiant. He continues to feel superior to everybody in the country.
Many distinguished persons have encouraged him to leave honorably including Mohamed Ibn Chambas of the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS].
It is no secret that Jammeh would find difficulty in relinquishing power. He has famously said he will be in power as long as Allah wants it. Many had believed he wanted to hold onto power until his son, Mohamed, could succeed him. Mohamed is only 10.
Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president; John Mahama, the outgoing president of Ghana, President Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone (who had unlawfully sacked his vice president); the UN’s Chambas; and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia were in his office together to try to convince him to leave power. Jammeh still has not been swayed. He has recently promoted 34 military men who would back him, and his army Chief of Staff, Ousman Badjie, a member of his tribe who had briefly pledged his support to Barrow, has seemingly reverted to the defiant Jammeh.
Despite the disappointing meeting, Chambas has assured the people of Gambia that Jammeh will follow the election results. ECOWAS leaders, according to a BBC report by Umaru Fofana, say, “president Yahya Jammeh must respect the result of the electoral commission and that they will attend the inauguration of Adama Barrow on January 19. President Buhari and Mahama to lead negotiations.” The Gambian government is still yet to react.
Meanwhile, staff and students of Gambia’s largest academic institutions are among those rebelling against Jammeh’s actions. According to BBC, the MDI [Management Development Institute]’s decision to boycott exams and stop academic activities until Jammeh steps down came after the student union at University of The Gambia, which was set up by Jammeh, endorsed a similar decision of the staff and faculty union there.
Many people living in The Gambia have started packing their things to move to neighboring Senegal. Their families overseas, many in America, are under pressure to send money to facilitate escapes from the inherent danger. Sallah, the vice president-elect and longtime opposition leader, has said Jammeh will have to become a rebel and that the UDP will take over come Jan. 19, the day power is to be transferred.
ECOWAS leaders have intimated to Jammeh that they will attend the inauguration of President-elect Barrow. Jammeh, meanwhile, has his military all over the place, seemingly at the ready. The situation remains fluid and uncertain as Jammeh has demanded the Supreme Court annul the results and call for a new election. This has brought more boycotts, but those who enjoy from his regime may remain with him.
Sallah has also warned civil servants who have thus far refused constitutional duties to protect the president-elect that they will become rebels if they continue to follow Jammeh. This came after BBC questioned Barrow about his Senegalese security detail.
We are bound to see the drama in that country continue because President Jammeh — having offended and, worse, killed many unnecessarily, for speaking against him — is practically afraid to relinquish power for fear of retribution. He had reportedly been seeking a pardon from ECOWAS leaders, but his prolonged defiance appears to be depleting his chances for cooperation.
While the IEC stands by the election results, Jammeh refuses to relent and his administration continues to pursue the Supreme Court reversal.
But Jammeh must hold onto something, as he is certainly fearful of answering for the many killings he’s reportedly ordered during his 22 years in power.
Jammeh is apparently not backing down as troops last week were sent to “seize” the IEC office on Kairaba Avenue. Meanwhile, Senegalese fighter jets have been spotted flying above The Gambia. ECOWAS has said it is possible that a force will be sent to The Gambia if diplomatic efforts to persuade Jammeh to step down fail.
Jammeh has always been defiant, pompous, arrogant, insinuating, full of pride, pretentious — and tenacious in the worst way.
The people of The Gambia — much like their counterparts here in America — are in fear of the unknown. But in the tiny West African nation, they hoard food in their houses and walk the streets quietly and cautiously as they wait for their late-January Inauguration Day.
And they wonder not what their new president might say next, but whether he might get the chance to be president at all.