(JollofNews) – Troops have been deployed to the streets of Banjul, the capital of the Gambia, after the autocratic president, Yahya Jammeh, unexpectedly rejected his defeat in an election last week and called for a fresh vote.
Jammeh had initially accepted the result, ceding power after 22 years, to a coalition led by the opposition leader, Adama Barrow. But few observers expected Jammeh to give up control of the small west African country.
The election result – and Jammeh’s acceptance of defeat – was widely seen as a moment of democratic hope on the continent and prompted widespread celebration in the Gambia and elsewhere.
But in an announcement on state TV on Friday, Jammeh said he had changed his mind and wanted “fresh and transparent elections which will be officiated by a god-fearing and independent electoral commission”.
“After a thorough investigation, I have decided to reject the outcome of the recent election. I lament serious and unacceptable abnormalities which have reportedly transpired during the electoral process,” Jammeh said.
There was immediate speculation that the autocratic leader’s defiant announcement had been prompted by the prospect of prosecution under the new government.
Human rights groups have accused Jammeh’s government of detaining, torturing and killing his opponents during his rule. Dozens of pro-democracy activists were arrested earlier this year and one well-known leader killed.
Last week the chair of the country’s new ruling coalition said Jammeh would be prosecuted for his crimes within a year of handing over the reins of government in January.
Jammeh’s earlier decision to resign was reportedly due to a lack of support from senior security officials. However, the prospect of being held to to account for previous human rights abuses may have rallied the military and police behind the president. It is also possible Jammeh hopes to secure immunity from prosecution in return for withdrawing his rejection of the poll results.
Soldiers were seen placing sandbags in strategic locations across the capital, Banjul, a development that triggered widespread unease among the already spooked population, who had been panic-buying food before the vote due to fear of unrest.
The US embassy in Banjul urged the army to continue to show “respect for the rule of law and the outcome of the presidential election”. It added: “The Gambian people have made a clear choice for change and a new start.”
In Washington, the state department issued a statement calling Jammeh’s change of heart “a reprehensible and unacceptable breach of faith with the people of the Gambia and an egregious attempt to undermine a credible election process and remain in power illegitimately.”
The Gambian opposition spokeswoman Isatou Touray criticised the “violation of democracy” and called for people to “remain calm, lucid, vigilant and not retreat”.
Babatunde Olugboji, deputy programme director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the organisation was “deeply concerned by reports of belated objections to the Gambian election results raised by President Jammeh”.
Olugboji called on “the international community, notably Ecowas [the Economic Community of West African States] and the African Union” to “loudly protest against any unlawful attempt to subvert the will of the Gambian people”.
Jammeh’s defeat and resignation led to euphoria in the Gambia last week. The country is suffering a severe economic crisis, triggering an exodus of young people across the Sahara in an attempt to reach Europe. It is increasingly isolated diplomatically.
Official election results from the electoral commission gave Barrow, a property developer who once worked as a security guard at Argos in London, 45.5% of the vote against Jammeh’s 36.7%.
Opposition figures had earlier said that although they expected some electoral fraud and rigging, they hoped to win by a sufficient margin to make their victory impossible to contest.
Barrow is set to take over in late January following a transition period, but Jammeh is likely to make strenuous efforts to ensure that does not happen. Though democracy has made progress in Africa in recent decades, the momentum has slowed in recent years.
Courtesy of The Guardian