Walt Kilroy – The Gambia: The Departure of President Jammeh

This is a guest post by Walt Kilroy, Associate Director of the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction and lecturer in the School of Law and Government in Dublin City University

The peaceful handover of power after an election is not normally a major news event, especially when the outgoing president goes on television immediately to accept the results. However, the small West African state of The Gambia has seen high drama, U-turns, and gunboat diplomacy in the weeks since its opposition leader surprised everyone by winning the election on December 1st. In the end, it took sustained pressure from neighbouring countries – both diplomatic and eventually military – to remove Yahya Jammeh, the autocratic and ruthless president who had held power for 22 years. It is in fact the first time that power has been transferred peacefully in The Gambia, which is the smallest country on the continent of Africa, with a population of less than two million.

The first surprise was the election result itself, given that previous votes had confirmed the dictator’s hold on power. The final result gave the presidency to opposition candidate Adama Barrow with 43.3% of the vote, against 39.6% for the incumbent, Jammeh. A third candidate accounted for the rest of the votes. Adama Barrow himself was born in 1965, the same year that Gambia became independent. He spent some years in Britain working in real estate, before returning to set up in business back home. He hardly seemed destined to lead his country, and did not have a particularly high profile. He was chosen as an agreed candidate by a coalition of seven different parties – almost the entire opposition – only a short time before the election.

He was up against the man had ruled the country with an iron fist for 22 years since taking power in a bloodless coup. But his regime was far from bloodless, and political opponents were shown little mercy. Jammeh was not just brutal: he was idiosyncratic in his own sinister ways too. He claimed to have cured AIDS, and that he could rule for a billion years. So it was a further surprise when he conceded defeat graciously within hours of the result being declared by the electoral commission on December 2nd. National television carried the outgoing president’s announcement that he would work with the new leader of country, and went on to show him phoning Adama Barrow to pledge his support. The public responses include what can only be described as outpourings of joy, mixed with disbelief. Gambians were finally losing their fear.

But within days the position had reversed, when Jammeh changed his mind and rejected the election results. He referred the outcome to the Supreme Court, one of the state institutions hollowed out under his rule. It did not actually have enough judges to hear the case. The international reaction was firmly behind Barrow, however, with support from the African Union, UN Security Council, and Organisation of Islamic States. Much of the work was done by the West African grouping, ECOWAS, and by individual leaders from the region. A series of delegations at presidential level held talks with Jammeh, trying to persuade him to stand down. They included Senegal, which surrounds The Gambia entirely apart from a small Atlantic coastline. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also spent considerable time on the case. So did Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who was appointed head of an ECOWAS mediation committee. He had himself benefitted from his own predecessor – Goodluck Jonathon – quickly conceding defeat in the country’s 2015 elections. Ghana meanwhile held elections on December 10th in which the incumbent lost, and outgoing President John Mahama joined the effort to ease Jammeh from office. The deadline was clear, since the inauguration was due to take place on January 19th.

In ways, the transition is a real success for regional diplomacy, helped by an immediate and clear consensus among neighbouring states. But from quite early on in the process, they made clear that ECOWAS troops would be used to ensure the election results were respected. The regional body had already used its forces during the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, which ended in 2002 and 2003 respectively.

Jammeh remained defiant almost to the end, even as former associates began to desert him. The attitude of the military was keenly gauged: the head of the armed forces initially appeared to back Jammeh. Adama Barrow left the country for neighbouring Senegal, with real fears for his safety. Preparations were explicitly made for his swearing in at the Gambian embassy there. And ECOWAS troops crossed into Gambia, meeting no resistance, while Nigeria added a gunboat to the diplomacy, by sending one of its most modern vessels to the area. At this stage head of the army added more colour by saying that ECOWAS forces would be greeted with flowers and tea – although the attitude of the presidential guard was not so clear.

Adama was inaugurated on schedule, albeit in the embassy in Senegal, with clear international backing, while neighbouring presidents visited Jammeh yet again to persuade him to go. Just over days after Barrow’s inauguration, Jammeh was flown out of Banjul, travelling on later to Equatorial Guinea. Naturally there was speculation about why the negotiations dragged on so long, even when it was clear the game was up. Did immunity from prosecution feature in the talks? The example of the former Liberian leader Charles Taylor might have played on Jammeh’s mind. He had been eased out during peace talks in 2003, helped by the idea that he could live an untroubled life in Nigeria. But he was eventually removed from that country, to face charges before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, in whose war he had been leading player. He is now serving a long sentence for his crimes.

Or was it about keeping some of his wealth? The BBC reported that two Rolls Royces and a Bentley were loaded onto a Chadian air force plane on the weekend of his departure. One of President Barrow’s staff later said that $11 million was missing from government coffers, although the report has not been confirmed.

Adama Barrow has now returned to The Gambia as president and received a tumultuous welcome. After years of dictatorship, the country faces some real challenges. The new leader has never held elected office, and was voted in at the head of a coalition of seven parties who will have to work together. State institutions which would ensure accountability, such as the Supreme Court, will have to be rebuilt. Security sector reform will also be important, in a state where critics of the regime faced torture or worse. The recovery of stolen assets may arise. Processes of transitional justice can be important in moving on from the past, and a truth recovery process has already been announced. But what about prosecutions versus impunity for those involved in the brutalities of the old regime, even if Jammeh himself escapes justice? The example set will be watched with interest elsewhere, especially where presidents-for-life are being encouraged to opt for retirement rather than holding onto power to the very end in order to avoid prosecution.

In the meantime, it is clear that is there is a groundswell of goodwill and indeed hope in The Gambia and its neighbours. There is determination throughout civil society to opt for accountable government – along with expectations of real change in a country weighed down by poverty and drained by emigration. This will be an interesting space to watch.

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