Negotiating Jammeh out

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

Yahya Jammeh, hopefully Gambia’s outgoing president, surprisingly conceded defeat after losing elections held on 1 December. Shortly thereafter, the oft-erratic leader changed his mind. The president-elect, Adama Barrow, has threatened to declare himself president should his inauguration not take place as planned on 18 January. There have been varied accounts about the events that led to President Jammeh conceding defeat the way he did. Prominent amongst them is that the Gambian Army virtually threatened him if he did otherwise. It is believed his decision to hold on came after getting the Army onside. These involved mass promotions for soldiers of Jola ethnicity, his tribe, and procurement of foreign mercenaries to guard him and so on. Calls for his prosecution got him spooked certainly. But surely, this could not have come as a surprise to him. The explanation that makes sense to me is that he sought to buy time, whilst he engaged in ‘consultations’. It is widely known Mr Jammeh relies a great deal on fortune-tellers. But I think a part of him also saw the loss as an opportunity: every dictator after a while wonders how it will all end. It is probable Mr Jammeh reckoned his magnanimity would earn him the forgiveness of Gambians. Alas, wisdom was in short supply among leading opposition figures.

Only credible threat of force will do
Were Mr Jammeh to succeed in holding on to power, the damage to democratic progress on the African continent would be tremendous. Stopping him would require a credible threat of military intervention, however. But judging from the communique issued by the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) heads of state at its most recent summit this past weekend (17 December), military action against Mr Jammeh, should he refuse to handover power in January, was not discussed in concrete terms. Promising to take all ‘necessary actions’ to ensure Mr Barrow’s inauguration without a clear red line was not entirely reassuring. Without a credible threat of force, Mr Jammeh may get away with his latest mischief I’m afraid. Furthermore, the mediator assigned to ensure he doesn’t, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, has troubles of his own. Busy with at least two major armed insurgencies, Mr Buhari would be loath to send his troops abroad. But without a doubt, his leadership would be crucial to resolving the impasse.

Power-sharing should not be an option
Mr Jammeh has indicated he would not be averse to a power-sharing arrangement with Mr Barrow. Trouble is, allowing Mr Jammeh to stay beyond 18 January would only buy him time. There are precedents. The 2007 Kenyan presidential elections were similarly contentious. Raila Odinga, the leading opposition candidate, refused to accept the official results, which declared Mwai Kibaki, then Kenya’s president, as winner with about 46 percent of the vote. Violence broke out consequently. Eventually, both parties agreed a power-sharing deal, under the skilled facilitation of Kofi Annan, the former United Nations top scribe. It is noteworthy that although Mr Odinga successfully served his term as prime minister under the deal, the presidency has since eluded him. Similar troubles were associated with the 2008 Zimbabwean presidential elections. In the first round, Robert Mugabe, the incumbent, came second with 43 percent of the vote. Morgan Tsvangirai, the leading opposition candidate, came first, with 48 percent of the vote. Even so, Mr Tsvangirai thought his tally was undercounted, claiming he secured at least half of the vote and thus didn’t see a need for a runoff. But because officially, both leading candidates did not secure the minimum half, a second round of voting was called. Although eventually agreeing to participate, Mr Tsvangirai would soon pull out just before the polls, citing safety concerns for his supporters, after several of them went missing, were killed or injured from wanton attacks by Mr Mugabe’s supporters. In the violent aftermath of Mr Mugabe being officially declared winner of the runoff polls, tremendous international pressure was brought to bear on the ‘victor’ to agree a power-sharing arrangement with Mr Tsvangirai. Again, just like in the Kenyan example, Mr Tsvangirai became prime minister and his aspirations for the presidency have since remained just that: Mr Mugabe is set to run for yet another term in office come 2018. Note how in both the Kenyan and Zimbabwean cases, the incumbent cheated and prevailed.

Persuade the military
Mr Jammeh is in a relatively stronger position than either Mr Kibaki or Mr Mugabe were when they sought to subvert the will of their peoples. First, there has not been a violent aftermath. Second, Mr Barrow does not have real power: his safety and electoral mandate are almost entirely subject to Mr Jammeh’s discretion. But there is one major difference: Mr Kibaki and Mr Mugabe were ‘officially’ declared winners of their controversial elections. In Mr Jammeh’s case, not only was he officially declared to have lost, he conceded defeat publicly. If he had any sense of shame, he would have left it at that. But Mr Jammeh is no statesman. Thus, short of a foreign military intervention, by ECOWAS, say, Mr Jammeh could successfully dig in his heels. A much more effective tact might be to persuade the Gambian military to nudge him out. Incidentally, they likely also fear for their fate when he is gone, hence why they back him. For now. Even so, they may yet save everyone the trouble.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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