Yahya Jammeh – who ruled The Gambia for more than 22 years – is stepping down and leaving the country the internationally recognized new President Adama Barrow said Friday.
Barrow tweeted, “I would like to inform you that Yahya Jammeh agreed to relinquish power and leave the country.”
This comes after the Mauritanian and Guinean presidents met with Jammeh earlier in the day to try to convince him to cede power peacefully to Barrow.
If Jammeh refused, troops from the regional Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, were ready to take action. Thursday evening, Senegal-led troops backed by the UN Security Council entered The Gambia, after Barrow was sworn in as president earlier that day at the Gambian Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, where he remains.
The troops had been waiting on Friday to take action, to see whether Jammeh would agree to go peacefully.
The troops’ move into The Gambia is not surprising. ECOWAS said last month it would intervene with force if Jammeh did not step down by Jan. 19, Barrow’s inauguration day.
Alex Vines, Head of the Africa Program at Chatham House, told The Cipher Brief that the threat of military intervention was not a “bluff.” Rather, it was always “about heaping pressure on Jammeh.”
Troops from not only Senegal, but also Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, and Togo are gathered on the Gambian border. Thomas Murphy, a Sub-Saharan Africa analyst for Risk Advisory Group, told The Cipher Brief that “a Nigerian warship has been spotted off the coast of Banjul and Senegalese fighter jets have been flying over The Gambia all day.”
Analysts also told The Cipher Brief that ECOWAS troops are likely to be met with little resistance. Indeed, there have been no reports of resistance since troops were deployed Thursday evening.
Steve McDonald, a fellow in the Wilson Center’s Africa Program, said “the army chief of staff has indicated he and his men will not resist any ECOWAS force coming in to secure things,” adding, “There is still a small Praetorian Guard faction loyal to Jammeh who might fight to protect him, but they would be overwhelmed.”
In addition, Jammeh’s Vice President and eight ministers have resigned and many generals and officers have reportedly deserted. “This would suggest that he [Jammeh] is not in a strong position to either withstand an intervention, or exercise any power if he manages to stay,” Murphy said.
Jammeh has cited an electoral dispute – that the country’s Supreme Court is not set to resolve until May at the earliest – as the reason for staying in power. Indeed, this week, the parliament approved a 90-day extension to Jammeh’s term and a 90-day state of emergency – moves aimed at preventing Barrow from taking the oath of office.
But this extension was never recognized by the international community.
“It’s not altogether surprising that Jammeh is refusing to step down,” Founding Director of Vanguard Africa Jeff Smith told The Cipher Brief. “Over the course of two decades he has shown a callous unwillingness to be reasonable and to do the right thing for the country. In this way, his seeming intention to bring unnecessary disorder and anxiety to the country is consistent with his past behavior,” he said.
Jammeh has ruled The Gambia for more than 22 years, after coming to power in a military coup in 1994.
A successful transition of power from Jammeh to Barrow would be a telling sign for the region.
“The role of ECOWAS, which has had similar interventions in the past in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Ivory Coast, including troops on the ground in Liberia at the end of the civil war, is setting an example for the AU [African Union] and African Regional Economic Communities on how to honor its mutual security and economic agreements and keep regional stability,” McDonald says.
He adds, “This response from the international community and particularly Africa is a sign that the new peace and security architecture of the AU is serious, that the dictatorships are indeed a thing of the past, and that democracy is truly taking root in Africa. For stability and development, this is a massively important development for the U.S.”
On January 19, Gambian presidential winner Adama Barrow is slated to begin his term, taking over from long-time ruler Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994. Barrow, a former real-estate agent, won the presidential election on December 1, with 263,515 votes to Jammeh’s 212,099.
Initially, Jammeh accepted defeat. However, he quickly reversed course and is now disputing the validity of the election. The Gambian Supreme Court was scheduled to resume hearing the case on January 10, but that date has been pushed back to May, after all of the foreign judges on the Court failed to show up. Jammeh is using the pending court case as justification for remaining in power past January 19, Barrow’s inauguration day.
The current infighting and the outcome of this political process is not solely a Gambian issue.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari led a delegation of concerned African leaders to The Gambia on January 11 to urge President Jammeh – yet again – to resolve the issue. This comes after a January 9 meeting of leaders from Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Liberia to discuss the situation.
“ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] said they’re involved to protect the will of the Gambian people and to uphold the election result,” Thomas Murphy, a lead Sub-Saharan Africa analyst at Risk Advisory Group, tells The Cipher Brief.
The Gambia’s neighbors are also concerned about stability in the region. Senegal, for example, accuses President Jammeh of supporting an insurgency in the Casamance region, just south of The Gambia. Other surrounding nations are displeased with Jammeh’s “eccentric behavior” and “policies that seem to have been made up on a whim,” explains Murphy.
Moreover, other West African nations are performing relatively well, compared to The Gambia – a country which could pose a threat to that progress. Executive Director of Vanguard Africa Jeffrey Smith tells The Cipher Brief, “The Gambia is undoubtedly a pariah state in West Africa and an extreme outlier in regards to other countries in the region who are performing rather well on a range of issues, including respect for political rights, civil liberties, and economic advancement.”
Ghana, for example, recently held a peaceful election, ending with a peaceful transition of power to the opposition candidate. Benin also held peaceful elections in 2016. And the President of Mauritania, in an unprecedented move, declared he will not seek re-election at the end of his term in 2019.
To ensure democratic accountability and regional stability, ECOWAS announced last month it has authorized a “standby force,” and indicated military force will be used in The Gambia if Jammeh refuses to go on January 19.
Beyond West Africa, the United States, European Union, and United Nations Security Council have also called for the will of the Gambian people to be respected. On December 11, the White House released a statement from National Security Council (NSC) Spokesperson Ned Price saying, “The United States strongly condemns the decision by President Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia to ignore the will of the Gambian people in calling for the December 1 election to be nullified. […] The United States appeals to all Gambians to reject violence and seek a peaceful resolution that upholds the will of the Gambian people and advances the promise of a freer, more democratic, and more prosperous Gambia.”
Murphy notes that “from an ideological point of view, the U.S. has an interest in promoting democracy in West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Not only is Jammeh disputing a free and fair election process (affirmed by the electoral commission), but also a fourth radio station in The Gambia has been shut down, the election commissioner has fled the country, and the former Information and Communication Minister resigned on January 9, declaring his support for the December election result.
The Gambia has shown numerous democratic deficiencies in the past as well, including Jammeh’s dismissal of all but one of the Supreme Court justices (and, hence, the need for foreign judges in the current election case).
In October, The Gambia announced it is withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.
“[…] this is not just about The Gambia, but about the future of democracy in the region and beyond,” comments Smith.
A more concrete concern for the U.S. is business. “There are several U.S. firms that operate in The Gambia, so it’s important to maintain stability in the region and in the country itself,” Murphy explains.
Another consideration is migration. Gambians were the fifth-highest arrivals to Italy from January – November 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – despite being the smallest country by area in mainland Africa and having less than two million inhabitants. It is speculated that this migration is due to economic push factors, says IOM Regional Director for West and Central Africa Richard Danziger. And indeed, President-elect Barrow campaigned partially on a platform to create jobs. If Barrow can follow through on economic reforms, minimizing the need to migrate, this will alleviate some pressure from America’s European partners, who continue to be strained under the weight of mass migration not only from the Middle East, but also from Africa.
Jammeh’s actions – whether to step down – and the response from ECOWAS – whether to use military force – will impact West African stability, democratic values at large, and likely migration flows from The Gambia to Europe.
This article was updated on January 20.
Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.