The Gambia’s Supreme Court was supposed to hold a hearing on a petition to annul the December presidential election, brought by the country’s current President Yahya Jammeh, who lost the election. Chief Justice Emmanuel Fagbenle says that hearing is now postponed until May. Meanwhile, President Jammeh’s term technically ends the evening of January 18th and his successor, Adama Barrow, is supposed to be sworn in on the 19th. Jammeh is using the court case to justify his staying in power. But Thomas Murphy, a Risk Advisory Group analyst working on The Gambia, says that is constitutionally questionable. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Murphy about the latest developments.
The Cipher Brief: Is the current political situation in The Gambia – with President Yahya Jammeh saying he’s not going to step down, even though he lost December’s presidential election – in any way surprising?
Thomas Murphy: No, not really. What was more surprising was first, when Jammeh lost the presidential election and second, when he fairly swiftly conceded defeat in the presidential election. It had been widely anticipated that he would – that the election would be rigged, it wouldn’t be free and fair. There were quite a few international actors that refused to monitor the election, including the European Union (EU). The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – the regional bloc – said it doubted the vote would be free and fair. The U.S. government, the New Democracy Institute, Human RIghts Watch, and other NGOs also issued statements saying the election wasn’t going to be free and fair.
There was a widely held expectation that when the results came out, Jammeh would win quite convincingly, like he has done in all of the other elections that have been held since he took power in 1994. So when he lost, that was quite surprising for most people who were watching it. And then, when he conceded defeat that was even more surprising, especially for a president who has been quite eccentric in how he has conducted himself. For him to just – what looked like – he was going to bow out, go out with grace – that was quite surprising.
When he changed his mind and said no, I don’t accept these results, that was characteristic of the President. And then the subsequent events have been, dare I say, a bit more in character for the President.
TCB: Can you unravel for me exactly what’s happening with the case that Jammeh has brought to the Supreme Court – what he is claiming went wrong in the electoral process, and how is the timing of the case going to work out?
TM: Jammeh is contesting the results based on what he calls counting irregularities in some areas of The Gambia. The electoral commission conceded there were some errors in some of the counting but has rejected any claim that there was fraud or any other issues with the results.
So Jammeh has challenged the election outcome in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court actually didn’t exist, or wasn’t sitting, until this week. The President had dismissed all but one of its members for various reasons over the past few years. So since announcing his challenge, Jammeh has had to appoint six of the seven judges that are now sitting on the Court. The Gambian Bar Association refused to participate in this process, so all the appointments were foreigners, from Nigeria, Senegal, and other neighboring West African countries. The case was heard just before Christmas initially. That was adjourned until January 10. On the 9th, there were rumors that various judges who were supposed to be sitting on the Court weren’t in Banjul (The Gambia’s capital). So when the Court was due to sit on the 10th, none of the judges were present except for the Gambian Chief Justice, who then postponed the hearing until May.
This raises a few questions. President Jammeh’s term expires on the night of January 18. He has said he’s not going anywhere, given that his case is still in front of the Court, but the constitutionality of that is questionable. Still, given that courts in The Gambia are so politically compromised, Jammeh probably has the advantage. The opposition candidate – President-elect Adama Barrow – has said that come the 19th, he plans to be inaugurated and he considers himself President, which is obviously going to cause some conflicts. To make matters a little more complicated, the regional bloc ECOWAS has also said if Jammeh doesn’t stand down by the 19th, they will consider intervening or invading The Gambia. They’re threatening direct military action.
TCB: Why is ECOWAS involved? Why are neighboring countries concerned about this?
TM: ECOWAS is comprised of The Gambia and 14 other West African states. They’ve said they’re involved to protect the will of the Gambian people and to uphold the election result. I didn’t mention this before, but the few monitors who were at the election said they found no evidence of interference. The electoral commission has denied any evidence of fraud or interference in the results. So ECOWAS has said they are there to uphold the democratic will of the Gambian people.
There are probably some ulterior motives there. Jammeh hasn’t made friends in West Africa. In particular, Senegal, which completely surrounds The Gambia, has had poor relations with Jammeh. Senegal on numerous occasions has accused President Jammeh of supporting an insurgency in the Casamance region, which is just south of The Gambia, and has accused Jammeh of funding and training rebels. This is probably why Senegal will lead any potential military action against the president.
TCB: So that makes sense to me – that these countries, especially Senegal, are concerned about the stability of the region. But why would the U.S. be concerned? U.S. National Security Council Spokesman Ned Price said in mid-December the same thing as ECOWAS, that the U.S. is committed to the will of the Gambian people. Why is the U.S. concerned?
TM: Obviously from an ideological point of view, the U.S. has an interest in promoting democracy in West Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa and making sure that the democratic exercise that is being held is legitimate and has some credibility to it.
More broadly, 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. And The Gambia is quite an attractive tourist destination; it attracts a lot of U.S., European, and also regional tourists, so there is an interest there.
Instability in The Gambia has the potential to spread into the southern parts of Senegal. For the most part, the insurgency there has been controlled, but if unrest were to expand from The Gambia, that may compromise the security situation in southern Senegal, which again is not in U.S. interests, as the U.S. is a partner of Senegal.
TCB: What do you think, right now, that the situation a week from now – on the 19th – is going to be?
TM: It’s the million-dollar question for everyone watching The Gambia at the moment. All indications seem to say that Jammeh’s Supreme Court case doesn’t have genuine intents. His Information Minister resigned on January 9, saying that the Supreme Court challenge is simply an attempt to subvert the will of the Gambian people. I think that is going to bolster ECOWAS’s case for a military intervention.
ECOWAS members are going to question whether a new election would ever be held (if the Court rules in favor of Jammeh) and whether that new election would be free and fair. I think for ECOWAS leaders, the worst case scenario is that Jammeh stays, either by a Supreme Court ruling that leads to new elections (which Jammeh wins) or by the Supreme Court constantly pushing back the hearing date.
The fact that the hearing has been pushed back to May probably makes an ECOWAS intervention in some ways more likely than it was, say yesterday. So over the next week, we’ll have to monitor the situation and especially diplomatic efforts by ECOWAS states.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is in Banjul on January 10 to again try to convince President Jammeh to stand down. But I think, as I said, that an ECOWAS military intervention is certainly more likely today than it was yesterday.