What Next for Gambia After Yahya Jammeh's U-Turn?

Gambia election demonstration
A supporter of Gambia's President-elect Adama Barrow walks over a poster of the incumbent Yahya Jammeh, Serekunda, December 2. Jammeh's decision to reject the election result has left Gambians fearing unrest, and many are still leaving to migrate to Europe. MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty

It seemed too good to be true.

A largely peaceful election day in Gambia on December 1 portended a seismic power shift, with voters choosing to oust incumbent President Yahya Jammeh after 22 years under his rule.

Perhaps even more surprising than the result—which saw Gambians elect property developer Adama Barrow, who has scant political experience, to replace Jammeh—was the president's gracious acceptance of the result. Jammeh said in a televised address that he accepted the result as the "will of Allah" and that he would support Barrow's transition before retiring to his farm in Kanila, a village in southern Gambia. Jammeh was even filmed calling Barrow and congratulating him on his victory.

But on Friday, Jammeh abandoned his newfound graciousness and battened down the hatches. "I hereby announce to you Gambians my total rejection of the election results. I'm thereby annulling the elections in its [sic] entirety," said Jammeh in a televised statement, citing abnormalities in the vote tallying process and claiming that some voters were not allowed to vote or were told that the opposition had already won.

Barrow's opposition coalition has slammed Jammeh's statement, calling on the incumbent to stand down immediately and hand over power, Reuters reported. Regional and international organizations, including the African Union and United Nations, have also denounced Jammeh's rejection of the results.

But with Jammeh set to file a petition to Gambia's Supreme Court challenging the election result, analysts are fearful that the transition of power will not go as smoothly as hoped. Newsweek looks at some of the potential scenarios ahead for Gambia.

Jammeh Bows to International Pressure

The Gambian president's change of heart regarding the election result has been met with dismay from regional and international actors. Marcel Alain de Souza, the head of regional body the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), described Jammeh's U-turn as "shameful" and called on him to respect the will of the Gambian people, AP reported. Neighboring Senegal has called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, while further afield, the U.S. State Department described Jammeh's move as "an egregious attempt to undermine a credible election process and remain in power illegitimately."

Pressure is only likely to continue mounting on Jammeh. On Tuesday, the heads of state of Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana are all due to travel to Gambia in a bid to force the outgoing president to leave power immediately, according to the Senegalese government. If Jammeh was able to accept the election result once—even if only temporarily—perhaps regional leaders are hoping he can do so again on a more permanent basis.

Muhammadu Buhari
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations General Assembly, New York, September 20. Buhari is one of several West African heads of state due to travel to Gambia in a bid to convince Jammeh to accept the election result and step down. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Gambia's Missing Supreme Court

After Jammeh's televised rant Friday, his ruling Alliance for Reorientation and Construction (APRC) said Saturday that it was preparing a petition to the country's Supreme Court against the "flawed decision" of the election commission, with Tuesday serving as the deadline for any challenge to be served.

The problem that Jammeh and his party failed to mention, however, is that Gambia currently does not have a sitting Supreme Court. In an opposition press conference in the Gambian capital Banjul on Monday, a spokesman for Barrow said that the court had not sat in Gambia for more than a year and that Barrow's coalition did not believe that Jammeh had the "constitutional authority" to appoint fresh judges to hear the case, given that he is due to step down in January.

According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, Jammeh's regime has exerted strong control over the judiciary. The report stated that the country had three chief justices between 2013 and 2015: one, a Pakistani judge, told a news site in his home country that he decided to leave Gambia because he acquitted a former Gambian naval officer accused of plotting a coup against Jammeh. "Since the Gambian government was not happy with the decision, I therefore decided to step down because I could not work in such an environment," the judge, Ali Nawaz Chohan, told Dawn.

Without the requisite judges to hear the case and facing opposition for the coalition, a legal and political stalemate may ensue should Jammeh insist on going through the courts.

Jammeh Fights for His Position

The chair of Barrow's seven-party opposition coalition, Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang—herself a respected politician in Gambia—warned in an interview with The Guardian following Jammeh's initial acceptance of the result that she did not expect him to go quietly. "We don't trust him. The longer we leave him, the more possibilities he has to leave the country, to escape from the country and to even do an insurgency. He is capable," said Jallow-Tambajang of Jammeh.

Gambia military
A Gambian soldier reacts as he patrols with his colleague while people celebrate after the victory of Gambia's opposition candidate Adama Barrow, Serekunda, Banjul, December 2. MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty

Throughout his rule, Jammeh has relied on the support of his military; it was his security forces that bailed him out in late 2014 by defeating a coup attempt launched while he was abroad. The head of the Gambian army, General Ousman Badjie, gave his allegiance to President-elect Barrow after the election result was announced, but Jammeh may look to test that resolve if he pursues the path of rejecting the results.