Yahya Jammeh and Mrs. Zeinab Jammeh at the White House, August 2014.
Photo: By Office of the White House (Amanda Lucidon) Public Domain, Link
The Gambia is one of only two countries in the world whose name starts with the article “The.” At 10,689 square kilometres in area, it is also the smallest country on the African mainland. All of its land borders are with Senegal. Since 1994, it has been ruled by Yahya Jammeh, who took over from the country’s independence president Dawda Jawara, in a bloodless coup and maintained himself in power using antics many African strongmen are only too well versed in.
Last Friday Yahya Jammeh went into exile. Dressed in his quintessential flowing white robes and carrying a scepter, he waved solemnly at sniffling supporters, then flew out on a plane that was confirmed to have touched down in Equatorial Guinea, a small oil-rich country nestled in Africa’s western crook, the next morning.
The trouble which led to Jahmeh’s exile started late last year. On 1st December he lost his bid for a fifth presidential term when he was beaten in the presidential election by Adama Barrow. The former estate agent won 45 percent of the vote. Quite unexpectedly Jahmeh conceded and committed to a peaceful transition. Many times before he had sworn to “rule for a million years, if Allah wills it.” It seemed Allah was no longer willing, and Gambians celebrated gleefully on the streets of Banjul.
Around the same time, Fatoumata Tambajang, a tough lady considered the architect of Barrow’s victory, started breathing fire on Jahmeh. She vowed to prosecute him for his alleged crimes against humanity. She also threatened to re-join the Rome Statute, and therefore the International Criminal Court, from which Jahmeh withdrew the country last year.
Perhaps as a result of this, or any number of factors including Jahmeh’s famous unpredictability, Jahmeh changed his mind. A week after conceding, he expressed concern with results from some polling stations, annulled the elections, and asked for a second vote by submitting a petition to the country’s Supreme Court, which didn’t have the quorum to consider the issue. Jahmeh himself had earlier dismissed most of the judges.
The country descended into uncertainty and chaos. A tide of refugees pressed toward the Senegalese border. European tourists, drawn to the country by its magnificent Atlantic shoreline, swamped the airports. As the slated 19th January expiry of his term drew nearer, and international parties urged him to step down, Jahmeh sought more desperate ways to cling to power.
A UN-backed resolution by ECOWAS, a West African regional block, had raised the spectre of invading the country and militarily forcing him out. West African troops amassed around the tiny strip of sovereign territory. Nigerian warplanes flew its length and breadth like flies. On 18th January, Jahmeh imposed a State of Emergency and hung on. Adama Barrow had already flown out to Dakar, the Senegalese capital, fearing for his safety.
Meanwhile, Jahmeh was offered an option to leave peacefully by ECOWAS delegates Alpha Conde (President of Guinea) and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (President of Mauritania) who were mediating a peaceful solution. In return, he would retain his right to return to the Gambia later, “in accordance with his rights as a citizen and former head of state” and “none of his legal property would be seized.” For the moment, they told him, he had to leave since no one could assure his safety.
On the 19th, Barrow was sworn in at the country’s embassy in Dakar. Gambian refugees celebrated with him. International bodies recognised him as the legal President of the Gambia. The Gambia’s military switched its allegiance to him. Jahmeh had run out of options. Yet, for some, reason, he hung on beyond noon on 20th, the deadline he had been given to step down. On the 21st, to enforce the resolution, ECOWAS troops stepped on Gambian soil without resistance. Barrow had ordered the military to stand down.
Jahmeh, perhaps realising that he was now a sitting duck, with perhaps the best deal a sitting duck has ever gotten, packed his luxury goods, including several Rolls Royce cars, onto a Guinean cargo plane and dispatched them ahead of him to Equatorial Guinea. He followed on the evening of Sunday the 22nd.
Sensational reports that he had plundered the equivalent of 1.1 million dollars from national coffers seem to be contradicted by Barrow’s spokesman, who says the country’s central bank accounts are intact. Nevertheless, a feat of such ignobility is not beyond Jahmeh, who has, during his 22-year rule, amassed much more wealth than this at the expense of Gambians.
Teodoro Obiang, the strongman President of Equatorial Guinea, is now the host of the fallen dictator. His country never signed up for the Rome Statute, so the ICC cannot reach Jahmeh even if it wanted to. Obiang himself is out of reach, despite being just as, if not more deserving of criminal prosecution. Now the longest serving African dictator, he has presided over perhaps the worst human rights violations, nepotism and income inequality in contemporary times.
When his former flamboyance is taken into account, the end of Jahmeh’s long rule may seem anticlimactic. Yet it marks an important turning point for The Gambia’s history, as well as the onward march of democracy in Africa. Gambians have a fresh chance at having a firmer hand on their own destiny. And the continent now has one less country ruled by a strongman.
The role regional leaders played in bundling him out without firing a shot, is actually a much louder warning shot across the bows of other African dictators who would go against the will of the people. While situations vary across the continent, this case shows that regional leaders are more willing to meddle in sovereign countries in the interest of democracy. The implications are enormous.
It is with this in mind that Jahmeh’s exile in Equatorial Guinea obtains a dramatic symbolism. The tiny country now hosts two strongmen, one knocked off his perch. Looked at with a poetic eye, it seems as if the dictators are being rounded up into ever smaller confines, eventually to be squeezed and thrown out with their bathwater. But, of course, more than poetry is at play here.
Back in The Gambia, people are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their newly minted president, who has appointed Fatoumata Tambajang as his VP and is assembling his cabinet. Safety concerns have kept him in Dakar as ECOWAS forces comb his country for threats. Foreign press seem to capture a certain indulgent patience on the streets of Banjul for the president’s delay. But the expectations are high. Gambians want everything – democracy and bread – from him. He will need all the help he can get.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.