Gambia's Security Forces Must Put Human Rights Above Loyalty to Yahya Jammeh

Gambia court officer
A court security officer stands by Gambia's Army force bus at the Supreme Court in Banjul, Gambia December 5. Gambia's security forces have long been loyal to Yahya Jammeh, and there are fears that they could obstruct a democratic transition of power. Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters

Gambia's political crisis has entered a dangerous phase. After publicly conceding defeat in the December 1 presidential election, incumbent President Yahya Jammeh reversed his position on December 9 and rejected the election results. The longer he refuses to agree to step down, the greater the risk of human rights violations.

A high-powered team of West African presidents, led by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current chair of regional body Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), failed to persuade Jammeh to transfer power during a December 13 visit to Banjul, the capital, and the Gambian president appears to be digging his heels in. His party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, filed a Supreme Court challenge to the election results on the evening of December 13, making the court deadline by less than an hour.

In his attempt to stay in power, Jammeh, and the security forces he controls, could resort to the arbitrary arrests, torture and forced disappearances against political opponents and activists that have marked his 22 years in office. Security forces in April and May arbitrarily arrested and beat more than 90 peaceful opposition protesters; two of whom later died in custody, one allegedly as a result of torture at the National Intelligence Agency.

The risk of rights violations underscores the responsibilities of Gambia's security forces during the transition and the potential consequences if they fail to fulfill their international legal obligations. They should ensure that Gambians are secure, no matter their political persuasion, and that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest are respected. The army and police leadership should ignore any order that contravenes these obligations and instruct their subordinates to do the same.

Jammeh is believed to retain the support of key members of the security forces. Army chief Ousmane Badjie on December 13 arrived for the ECOWAS talks wearing a badge on his uniform featuring Jammeh's face and declared his support for the "commander in chief, President Yahya Jammeh."

President-elect Adama Barrow, who has no army or police security detail, said on December 11 that he feared for his safety. Two days later, Gambian security forces evicted the courageous chairman of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), Alieu Momar Njai, and his staff from their offices. "Other than Barrow, I am perhaps the individual most at risk," Njai told me afterwards.

Gambian army chief
Army chief General Ousman Badjie is pictured as he arrives at the mediation meeting with the West African delegation on election crisis, in Banjul, Gambia, December 13. The army chief has said he remains loyal to Yahya Jammeh following the election. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Barrow's supporters told Human Rights Watch that they worry that they will be arrested if they publicly protest Jammeh's power grab. Barrow has so far called for his supporters to exercise restraint, noting that Jammeh's term only officially ends on January 18. However, should they choose to exercise their right to protest peacefully—as they might if a diplomatic solution appears a dead-end—there is a real risk that the security forces will respond with excessive force. Indeed, in his speech rejecting the election results, Jammeh warned that he would not tolerate protests against his decision.

Gambian journalists, who say that Jammeh's electoral defeat gave them a brief glimpse of increased freedom of the press, now say they fear a renewed crackdown. "We're worried Jammeh will go after journalists who felt emboldened to air divergent political views," a representative of Gambia's Press Union told me. Over the past two decades, dozens of journalists have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured or forcibly disappeared and more than a hundred have fled the country.

Security officials implicated in abuses during the transition could face targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, similar to the targeted sanctions announced on December 12 by the United States and European Union against several officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo implicated in a crackdown on those opposed to President Joseph Kabila's attempts to stay in power in that country.

Furthermore, those responsible for rights abuses during the transition, including as a matter of command responsibility, risk being subject to prosecution. The most serious crimes in violation of international law will remain within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), as Jammeh's announced withdrawal from the ICC only becomes effective on November 10, 2017.

Resolving Gambia's crisis rests largely on Jammeh's shoulders—but also on those of Gambia's security forces. Whatever Jammeh decides to do, it's crucial that they act in a politically neutral and professional manner, and that means refusing orders that violate basic human rights. If they fail to do so, the consequences could be devastating.

Jim Wormington is a West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.