A Desperate Demagogue: How Gambian Democracy Is In The Balance


Removing President Yahya Jameh, Gambia’s ruler for the last 22 years, from power may require more than a mere electoral defeat as loyal military forces seized control of the IEC (Independent Electoral Commission) headquarters, prohibiting all employee entry into the building. In a statement to Al Jazeera, Alieu Momar Njai, the chairman of the IEC said, “The military came to my office and said I am not to touch anything and told me to leave. I am worried for my safety.” These developments, which occurred on December 13th, are understood to be a response to Mr. Jameh’s electoral defeat to businessman, Adama Barrow, on December 1st. It was a defeat that Mr. Jameh initially accepted. However, his acquiescence to the result was fleeting. Reneging on his promise to step aside willingly, he filed an appeal to the Supreme Court, demanding a revote and fresh polls. Mr. Jameh argues that the December 1st result was not an accurate portrayal of the Gambian population because many of his supporters, who were prematurely told of an opposition victory, saw no need to vote. He further questioned the IEC’s reporting of the final electoral result, which revised Mr. Barrow’s margin of victory from 9% to 4%.

The international community was swift to denounce Mr. Jameh, warning that potential intervention and penalties await him if he remains in power past his mandate. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was most severe in their condemnation, with ECOWAS senior official, Marcel de Souza, suggesting that military intervention is not out of the question. In a statement to the BBC, Mr. Souza proposed that “We’ve done it (military intervention) in the past” (as reported by Al Jazeera). The UN has joined ECOWAS in rebuking Mr. Jameh, with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, condemning the military takeover of the OEC as an “outrageous act of disrespect of the will of the Gambian people and defiance towards the international community” (as reported by Al Jazeera). The UN envoy for the region further stated that Mr. Jameh would be “strongly sanctioned” if he refused to step down.

To overthrow a demagogue is never simple and rarely conflict free, but always necessary, and Mr. Jameh is without exception. His appeal to the Supreme Court, whilst constitutionally permitted, is troublesome on many levels. Currently, Gambia’s Supreme Court is not functional and has not been functional for the past year. Of the seven-person panel, six positions are vacant after Mr. Jameh sacked two judges last year. With that said, Mr. Jameh would need to appoint as many as six judges for the appeal to take place. “Fundamentally unjust” is how the Bar Association, Gambia’s most influential group of lawyers, reacted and boycotts across courtrooms have taken place in protest.

An unaccounted variable that has the potential to cause violence is the army. Their capricious loyalty, which, according to General Badjie is governed by who “pays their wages” (as reported by Al Jazeera), has been taking orders from Mr. Jameh since he rejected the election results. This occurred after the army purportedly declared its support to Mr. Barrow. It is why ECOWAS warned of military intervention, but this can only be a last resort. Negotiations between Mr. Jameh and the heads of neighbouring countries, which have just got underway, offer the best chance of a peaceful solution.

The denouncing of Mr. Jameh has been immediate and unified by the Gambian people and international bodies. The response has been effective, but now persistence is required for democracy to prevail in a region that desperately requires a functional political system.

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