The Gambia’s political crisis is threatening to escalate into a potential armed conflict as the deadline for the handover of power from incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, to the President-elect, Adama Barrow, nears. Barrow’s inauguration is supposed to take place on 19 January 2017, however, this appears increasingly in jeopardy.
Barrow defeated Jammeh, who had ruled the Gambia for over two decades, in the country’s presidential election on 1 December 2016. Jammeh initially conceded defeat but then reneged on this statement following calls by the opposition coalition to arrest him once he steps down for crimes committed during his rule. Since Jammeh’s refusal to surrender the presidency, there has been security crackdown in The Gambia leading to the head of the country’s electoral commission fleeing the country claiming to fear for his life.
In the past few weeks, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) has attempted to mediate the burgeoning crisis and facilitate Jammeh’s exit. However, talks have subsequently broken down and Barrow is currently in neighbouring Senegal following threats to his life and his family’s safety. On 15 January 2017, Barrow’s son was killed by dogs in suspicious circumstances, however, this incident has not been conclusively linked to political motivations.
In a bid to prevent Barrow’s inauguration, Jammeh has filed an interdict with The Gambia’s Supreme Court. However, due to the country’s dependence on foreign judges from Ecowas states, owing to The Gambia’s lack of capacity, the case can only be heard in May 2017 as the Nigerian and Sierra Leonean judges assigned to the case will only be available then. In the meantime, Jammeh has begun cracking down on members of the security forces suspected of supporting Barrow and forced a bill through the legislature opposing any military intervention. This crackdown is also believed to be behind the rumour that The Gambia’s Justice Minister, Mama Singhateh, has also fled to Senegal. Singhateh is the latest in a series of cabinet ministers to leave the country following the defections of Foreign Minister Neneh Macdouall-Gaye,
Finance Minister Abdou Kolley and Trade Minister Abdou Jobe. These ministers likely believe that Jammeh’s days are limited and are attempting to either ingratiate themselves with Barrow or are leaving The Gambia in anticipation of investigations into the excesses of Jammeh’s government.
Following the breakdown of peace talks on 14 January 2017, Ecowas is believed to be considering deploying military troops to remove Jammeh and maintain a peacekeeping presence in the period following Barrow’s inauguration. If the bloc does pursue this option it will likely petition the African Union (AU) or the United Nations (UN) for formal approval to intervene. In this context, Jammeh will either be allowed to live in exile or he will be handed over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or, more likely, the African Court of Justice and Human Rights.
Ecowas may be forced to intervene regardless as if Jammeh refuses to step down there is a distinct risk of violent protests erupting across The Gambia. If this occurs, the most serious demonstrations will likely be located in the capital, Banjul, where opposition support is highest. In such an event, Jammeh will likely deploy the country’s security forces to disperse the protesters leading to violent, possibly even fatal, clashes. Similar scenarios have recently occurred in Gabon and Burundi, and it is likely that Ecowas will intervene as the bloc has proven its willingness to do so in the 2011 Côte d’Ivoire political crisis when Ecowas forces intervened to enforce the election result operating under the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire. Senegal, in particular, will feel compelled to intervene as The Gambia is located entirely within its borders and any civil conflict will lead to a major increase in refugees as well as the associated risk of the conflict spilling over into Senegal itself.
It appears that Jammeh’s time as The Gambia’s president is limited; however, it is likely that there will be further violence in the near future. Ecowas will likely either be forced to intervene to stop the burgeoning crisis in the coming weeks or compelled to intervene when Jammeh (most likely) loses his court bid to set aside the election result. Regardless of how the ongoing crisis plays out, there is a strong possibility of escalating violence in the coming days, particularly following the 19 January inauguration date.