Yahya Jammeh, the eccentric and capricious ruler of Gambia for the past 22 years, has reversed his decision to accept defeat in last week’s elections, saying he will call a fresh poll.
He alleged voter irregularities and called for new “transparent” elections to be held by a “god-fearing” electoral commission, presumably not overseen by the same official that declared results a week ago. Speaking on Friday night, Mr Jammeh read from a document he said was prepared by the head of the commission, detailing alleged errors in tabulation.
After the raucous celebrations that greeted the apparent end of Mr Jammeh’s repressive regime last week, the streets of Banjul, the capital, were quiet on Saturday. People were going about their business normally on Saturday morning, according to residents. There was no noticeably stronger security presence.
Mr Jammeh’s initial acceptance of his defeat to Adama Barrow had stunned his people and sent ripples around African capitals, even though Gambia is a small country with a population of only 2m.
“The whole continent applauded,” said Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president and an elder statesman, who said it was a sign that democracy was becoming more rooted throughout Africa.
Instead of sending troops on to the street, as many had expected, Mr Jammeh had appeared on state television congratulating Mr Barrow by phone on his victory.
But the man who once said he would rule for “a billion years” and who claimed he could cure Aids, has now reversed course. A week after conceding, he took to state television on Friday night, declaring solemnly: “I will not accept the results.”
The sudden reversal will come as a deep disappointment to African diplomats who had worked hard behind the scenes to nudge Mr Jammeh to hold a fair election.
Only hours before Mr Jammeh took to the airwaves on Friday night, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the UN’s top representative in west Africa, told the Financial Times: “The west African democracy train finally arrived in Gambia.” Mr Jammeh, he said, had not been able to resist a west African move towards more transparent elections.
“When he was defeated, he accepted, because that’s become the norm,” Mr Chambas said.
Mr Barrow has not spoken publicly since Mr Jammeh’s latest announcement. His transition team told Reuters late on Friday that the president-elect and his advisers were safe.
Reaction by the international community came swiftly. The US State Department said Mr Jammeh was attempting to remain in power illegitimately and Senegal’s government called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting.
Whether Western powers can influence Mr Jammeh is questionable. He has in the past dismissed criticism of his regime’s documented abuses as attempts to undermine his country’s stability.
Analysts see the action of African governments as being far more critical to mounting pressure on Mr Jammeh to stand down. The African Union on Saturday declared Mr Jammeh’s withdrawal of his concession as “null and void.”
One diplomat in Banjul said Mr Jammeh’s rejection came within the 10 day period specified in Gambian law for lodging a complaint over electoral results after they are announced.
It was not clear when or if Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian president and the head of regional body Ecowas would visit Banjul. Senegal’s foreign minister said on Saturday that Gambian authorities had refused her entry, Reuters reported, though the BBC subsequently quoted the Liberian government saying that she had not attempted to fly to the country and had no plans to travel there.
In his announcement on Friday evening, Mr Jammeh warned against protests and said security forces would keep order. Amnesty International called that “an extremely dangerous move that risks leading to instability” following weeks in the run-up to and aftermath of elections in which Gambians have been allowed to gather and speak freely.
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