By Rafiq Raji, PhD
It cannot be gainsaid how crucial it is to ensure Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s outgoing president, relinquishes power, peacefully or by force, on 19 January, the day President-elect Adama Barrow is scheduled to be inaugurated. President Jammeh has thus far rebuffed entreaties by West African leaders for him to step down when his tenure expires. Mr Jammeh insists his petition at the Supreme Court, which next meets in May, about irregularities in the collation of election results, the outcome of which he had earlier accepted, must be heard and decided beforehand. His belligerence and the consequent impasse represent a most significant threat to the consolidation of democracy in the West African region. Worse still, it threatens the country’s tourism industry, the mainstay of the about $800 million economy. Disapora remittances – about 20 percent of GDP – may also suffer, as international financial institutions probably take precautionary measures. Should he call the bluff of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has promised military action in the event, the year may prove unstable for one of Africa’s smallest countries. ECOWAS has little choice but to act if Mr Jammeh refuses to respect the will of his people. Otherwise, its ability to prevent a recurrence somewhere else in the region would be greatly damaged. Its troops must prepare and not take anything for granted, however. Because even though Mr Jammeh’s ‘forces’ may number about a thousand and some more, when the mercenaries he has recruited are counted, recent military history – the American Iraqi war debacle for instance – suggests success is now less dependent on superior hardware or manpower. A knowledge of the terrain and a highly motivated side fighting for its survival can be tremendously lethal. And lest we forget, Liberia and Sierra Leone were similarly small countries; but see how long and complicated ECOWAS peace-keeping efforts in those countries took.
Swear-in Barrow no matter what
Mr Barrow fled Gambia on Friday (13 January), in the company of West African leaders, under the cover of a visit to Mali to attend the France-Africa Summit. He was moved to Senegal afterwards, to ensure his safety till inauguration day. Hitherto, I worried Mr Jammeh might try to abduct or kill Mr Barrow before his inauguration – there were even rumours of his death at some point, probably a test of the waters by his detractors. Thankfully, ECOWAS leaders acted proactively and ‘absconded’ with him on time. They must also now ensure he is sworn-in on the due date – nothing is more important than that at this time. And it should be on Gambian soil, with a contingent of ECOWAS forces protecting him till he is able to assume full control. That is the only way to effectively de-legitimize Mr Jammeh. That is, if he chooses to be unreasonable. Of course, it helps a great deal that the African Union (AU) would cease to recognize him as the country’s president from then. The AU would get the opportunity to demonstrate just that when it meets later this month. It is also heartening that about 800 Nigerian troops have been reportedly put on alert for deployment to The Gambia. A Senegalese military contingent is also being readied for the task.
Evil that men do
There is still a chance Mr Jammeh would accept the soft landing package being offered him. He is probably still taking a wait-and-see approach. It is believed Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, the ECOWAS chief mediator, offered him asylum at their meeting in Banjul last week. The embattled Gambian strongman probably wondered if he would not suffer the same fate as that of former Liberian dictator, Charles Taylor, who though assured of safe refuge by Nigerian authorities, was eventually handed over to international judicial authorities for prosecution. Mr Taylor rightly now languishes in the chilly winter of a British prison for the heinous crimes he committed. It is probable Mr Jammeh has concluded the safest place for him to stay is in his country, likely his birthplace, Kanilai – believed to be his preferred capital and where his infamous farm is located. In the event of military action, he is likely to retreat there. ECOWAS military forces would be wise to keep him there, but not attack him or his mercenaries or any of the members of the Gambian armed forces who choose to stick with him, likely those from his Jola tribe. In any case, there are reports of desertions by his supposedly loyal men. It is also likely Mr Jammeh may build a human shield with innocent Gambians around any potential hideout. He has already ordered the closure of the border with Senegal, to stem an increasing exodus, as citizens flee what they imagine would be some period of instability. Regardless, I dearly hope at some point Mr Jammeh pays greatly for his misdeeds. His punishment has probably begun already. Because sometimes when an evil man’s time to meet his waterloo is due, even the gentlest entreaties would be rebuffed by him. But I certainly do not wish that this would be at the expense of innocent Gambian lives.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz. https://www.businessdayonline.com/jammeh-must-go/