A country with two presidents? Democracy tested in Gambia as Jammeh refuses to cede power

Gambia's 22-year incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, refuses to step down, but Gambia's neighbors have pledged support to successor Adama Barrow.

Bayo Omoboriowo/ Nigeria State House/AP
Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari (l.), Liberia President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2nd from l.) Gambia President, Yahya Jammeh (c.), former Ghana President, John Dramani Mahama, and an Unidentified woman meet in Banjul, Gambia, on Friday Jan.13, 2017. Nigeria's president was leading a regional delegation to Gambia in a last-ditch attempt Friday to persuade its longtime leader to step down.

It’s Inauguration Day in Gambia. But the streets of the capital, Banjul, are almost silent – and the incumbent president has so far refused to step down, despite international pressure.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been pushing President Yahya Jammeh to stand down since he first contested the election result in December. ECOWAS hoped to see a peaceful transfer of power between Mr. Jammeh and his successor, Adama Barrow, in a region that has seen too many elections followed by violence. But overnight talks to persuade Mr. Jammeh – who has held power for more than two decades – to step down have failed, Reuters reports.

It’s a true test of democracy in the country of 1.9 million people. And Gambia’s neighbors have pledged to help uphold the democratic process, by whatever means necessary. 

Jammeh has been the president of Gambia since seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1994. In four successive elections, each with questionable credibility, he defeated Ousainou Darboe, of the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), Reuters reported in December. When Mr. Darboe was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison, the party went looking for a new leader – and found one in Mr. Barrow, who had been the party treasurer. 

The businessman hadn’t been looking to get into politics. According to Reuters, he only discovered that he was being considered for the leader of the UDP when he showed up to vote in September. But Barrow persuaded eight opposition parties to rally around a single candidate for the December presidential election. They chose him.

In a surprise victory, Barrow defeated Gambia’s long-term incumbent president. Initially, Jammeh promised to step down, assuring a peaceful transition. But he soon rolled back that pledge, questioning the result of the election in the Supreme Court – though it doesn’t have enough judges to hear the case.

In the face of this controversy, ECOWAS stepped in. The regional bloc, which, according to the Associated Press, is the first to allow the use of military force in the name of democracy and human rights, committed to upholding the results of the election.

Since then, these 11 leaders have shown diplomatic and military support for Barrow – an encouraging sign of a growing commitment to democracy in Africa, The Christian Science Monitor's editorial board suggested on Wednesday. A military presence from Senegal stands on the border of Gambia, and Nigerian has pre-positioned warplanes and helicopters to intervene if Barrow requests it after being sworn in. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz led talks on Wednesday night to encourage Jammeh to step down.

Eleven ECOWAS leaders have committed to attending Barrow’s inauguration. Plans to conduct the ceremony in the national stadium in Banjul have been canceled, but the inauguration is set to take place Thursday afternoon at the Gambian embassy in Senegal.

"He is the absolute opposite of Jammeh. He wants to restore democracy, it will be entirely different," Barrow's spokesman Karamba Touray told Reuters in early December.

He plans to reverse Jammeh’s withdrawal of Gambia from the International Criminal Court and has pledged to step down in three years’ time to help ensure the country’s progress toward democracy.

It is unclear where Jammeh, who maintains that he is the president, was on Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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