ECOWAS moves to oust long-time strongman Yahya Jammeh
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
On Jan. 18, 2017, The Gambia’s parliament extended long-time Pres. Yahya Jammeh’s term as by three months and declared a state of emergency. On Jan. 19, 2017, officials swore in Adama Barrow as the internationally recognized president of the country in the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal in a ceremony attended by members the United Nations and Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS.
As the crisis deepened, more than 1,000 Senegalese troops crossed the border into The Gambia, set to march to the capital Banjul and force Jammeh to step down. The contingent had air cover from combat-loaded Nigerian armed reconnaissance jets, helicopters and other personnel.
Senegal and Nigeria are both members of ECOWAS. The regional bloc instructed the Gambian military to remain in its barracks.
On Dec. 2, 2016, Gambian citizens had been shocked to learn that Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994, had lost reelection by nine percentage points. His opponent Adama Barrow, a property developer with a past as a security guard in London, had won an unbelievable upset over the dictatorial leader.
Even more unforeseen, the long-reigning Jammeh declared he had accepted the election result and looked set to peacefully move on from his post. However, by the end of December 2016, the strongman had retracted his concession, claiming the election had “serious and unacceptable abnormalities.”
He cited the country’s electoral commission decision to issued a correction narrowing the final margin of victory. Opposition leaders openly speculating in the press that Jammeh could end up charged with human rights violations might have provoked the abrupt change of heart.
In short order, Gambian security forces seized the electoral commission headquarters and moved out onto the streets of Banjul. Jammeh filed a petition before The Gambia’s supreme court, claiming officials had “failed to properly collate the results” of the election.
But Jammeh’s dramatic reversal was too flagrant a breach of protocol for neighboring countries to ignore. ECOWAS head and Beninese politician Marcel de Souza warned that if the Gambian leder did not hand over power by Jan. 19, 2017, as the Gambian constitution dictated, the organization was ready to intervene militarily.
“And if none of that [persuasion] works, we will consider more draconian options,” Marcel told Radio France International. “We have done it in the past.”
“We currently have troops in Guinea-Bissau,” he continued. “We have had troops in Mali.”
“And therefore it is a conceivable solution.”
Jammeh countered, declaring his troops would fight back against such an “act of war,” and that his country’s supreme court would settle the election issue starting on Jan. 11, 2017. However, the court could not find enough judges willing to hear the case.
The Gambian president subsequently announced that the petition would not be resolved until May 2017. The West African leader must have bet other African nations would be unwilling to back up their tough talk with action — and not without good reason.
When the Africa Union threatened to intervene militarily in Burundi in 2015 to restore order during a bloody outbreak of political violence, President Nkurunziza called its bluff and declared his force would fight any peacekeepers tooth and nail. The A.U. meekly backed down.
However, The Gambia’s unique geographic and historical circumstances made intervention by ECOWAS a likelier prospect. This was something Jammeh should have taken into account.
The slim country’s odd borders are a direct product of colonial-era competition over the slave trade. While France seized the territory of Senegal, England claimed dominion over a thin stretch of land right in the middle of Paris’ claim, situated along the banks of the Gambia River, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.
As a result, the independent and predominantly Muslim country of nearly 2 million ended up surrounded on all sides by Senegal, except for a narrow stretch of coastline. This unusual situation led both countries to attempt unifying as a single entity — which proponents dubbed “Senegambia” — during the 1980s, without success.
Since gaining independence in 1965, The Gambia has not had a smooth transfer of power. Yahya Jammeh — who styles himself formally “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa,” the last two words meaning “Conqueror of Rivers” — overthrew his predecessor in a military coup in 1994, when he was just a 29 year-old lieutenant in the Army.
However, Jammeh’s actual military rank is one professional title he seems uninterested in retaining. He has fallaciously claimed to be an Admiral of Nebraska.
Jammeh became a quintessential dictator, vowing to rule for “one billion years” in 2013. He won a series of “violent and rigged” elections, and arrested journalists and political opponents — some of whom were tortured or killed.
Known for always appearing in white robes and holding a prayer stick, Jammeh has attributed messianic powers to himself. In 2007, he boasted of inventing an herbal concoction that would halt AIDs. Later he claimed he could cure infertility in women.
He also appeared to have sponsored a campaign by government agents to intern hundreds of Gambians accused of witchcraft in secret prisons. There witch doctors force-fed the inmates poisonous concoctions, according to The New York Times.
In 2011, relations between Jammeh and other West African nations began to sour. Claiming Gambian officials had suppressed opposition parties through “intimidation and repression,” ECOWAS refused to endorse his reelection.
In turn, Jammeh rejected an ECOWAS initiative to impose two-term limits on regional presidents and later dropped out of the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth of Nations. He bitterly opposed American efforts to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights throughout Africa, passing a series of harsh laws criminalizing homosexuals, whom he at various times threatened with beheading or throat-slitting.
So, Jammeh’s electoral defeat came as a surprise to many around the world, because of his dictatorial policies and wide-reaching network of secret police and informants. Many Gambians had been reluctant to criticize the president’s rule, fearing police or secret agents would come to drag them away in the night.
However, Jammeh’s arrest of a major opposition politician prior to the 2016 election may have actually made it easier for other opposition parties to unite against his rule and finally muster the necessary votes to oust him at the polls. Prominent opposition figure Usainou Darboe had long sparred with other political factions, as well as the government.
Still, it seems safe to say that nobody wanted a violent end to Jammeh’s regime. After the election, Nigerian Pres. Muhammadu Buhari attempted to cajole the eccentric leader into working out a peaceful compromise.
Barrow himself stated that Jammeh wouldn’t need to seek asylum abroad. And while the incoming president welcomed Senegalese support, but did not expect a military solution.
“We solve our problems within ourselves without the intervention of anybody,” he told BBC on Jan. 13, 2017. “I think that’s what we’d prefer.”
But that’s not how things have worked out. On Dec. 17, 2016, ECOWAS passed a resolution authorizing Senegal to intervene in order to “ensure the safety” of Adama Barrows as he acceded to power.
There was precedent for such an action as Senegalese troops had intervened in 1981 at the request of then Gambian president Dawda Jawara. Jawara’s opponent attempted a violent coup after losing another of the country’s contested polls.
What will happen during and after ECOWAS new intervention remains to be seen. According to a BBC reporter on the ground on Jan. 19, 2017, city streets in the small country were mostly deserted, though there had been restrained demonstrations in support for Barrow.
Gambian security forces initially appeared to remain loyal to Jammeh, who had favored officers with choice positions. Some rumors alleged he may have also recruited troops from the ranks of Casamance rebels in Senegal in the past.
“I’m supporting the commander-in-chief of the Republic of the Gambia — of the Islamic Republic of the Gambia — whosoever it may be,” the country’s military chief Ousman Badjie told The Guardian in December 2016. “As we speak now, I’m paid by the government of the day, that is Yahya Jammeh’s government.”
“He’s my commander-in-chief as we speak now,” he continued. “I have only one commander-in-chief as we speak.”
However, on Jan. 19, 2017, with Senegalese troops speeding toward Banjul, Badjie was singing a different tune.
“This is a political dispute,” he said when asked whether he would fight the ECOWAS forces. “I am not going to involve my soldiers in a stupid fight.”
“I love my men.”
The Gambian Army has some experience in peacekeeping missions, but would be horribly outclassed by any significant combination of ECOWAS forces. It officially numbers around 1,000 personnel in two battalions and a presidential guard company, and approximately a dozen dated armored cars.
In theory, up to 700 national guardsmen and 400 military policemen supplement these troops. The guardsmen in particular may be more loyal to Jammeh than the Army.
Four Taiwanese-made fast attack boats patrol the River Gambia , while the Gambian Air Force operates a single Su-25KM Frogfoot attack plane the country purchased from Georgia in 2003. A handful of civilian utility aircraft would be of little use in actual combat.
By contrast, Senegalese armed forces have roughly 19,000 personnel in total, along with a large inventory of light vehicles. The Senegalese Air Force lacks attack planes, but does possess a few Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships.
In addition, regional power Nigeria issued a memo readying a battalion of 800 troops to participate in an intervention if necessary. Later, officials in Abuja announced 200 Nigerian Air Force personnel had deployed to Senegal, bringing armed Alpha Jets with them, along with transports, light utility helicopters and observation aircraft.
The Nigerian Navy’s newly commissioned P18N-class corvette, the NNS Unity, moved into the region in a show of force and to facilitate evacuation of foreign nationals. As of Jan. 19, 2017, Ghana was also reportedly contributing troops.
ECOWAS forces would be able to overpower Jammeh’s troops, but armed clashes could lead to civilian casualties and a prolonged occupation. More than 26,000 Gambians reportedly streamed into Senegal and Guinea-Bisseau in anticipation of fighting, while private firms evacuated thousands of Western tourists from the country.
If the Gambian Army chief’s words are to be believed, the Gambian military may no longer intend to fight to maintain Jammeh’s hold on power. The president incorrectly thought that ECOWAS wouldn’t follow through on its threat to enforce the outcome of an election he lost.
Hopefully, his country will be able to avoid paying a price in human lives for his misjudgment.