Gambia: Former president Jammeh has not had his last word on the December elections

By Marième Soumaré

Posted on Tuesday, 26 October 2021 17:44
Yahya Jammeh during the December 2016 presidential election in Banjul © Jerome Delay/AP/SIPA

Less than two months before the upcoming presidential election, former president Yahya Jammeh continues to exert a lot of influence on Gambia’s political scene. He rejects the alliance that has been concluded between his party and that of Adama Barrow, who is running for a second term.

The former head of state continues to make headlines, even though he has been absent for several years and lives several thousand kilometres away from Banjul. A phone call to his supporters in his village of Kanilai on 16 October was all it took for him to return to the centre of the play.

From his place in Malabo, where he has lived since he lost the December 2016 presidential election, Jammeh called an “emergency” meeting to discuss the agreement that had been made in early September between his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), and that of President Adama Barrow, the National People’s Party (NPP).

According to local media reports, Jammeh objected to the strange pairing and ordered his party officials to be dismissed. Fabakary Tombong Jatta, the party’s leader, was fired immediately.

Unnatural alliance

However, Barrow’s entourage says this will not be enough to call the September agreement into question. “What Jammeh said changes absolutely nothing. Fabakary Tombong Jatta is the APRC’s legally recognised leader and his decisions are binding on the party,” says Mambanyick Njie. The NPP’s administrative secretary also says the majority are not supporters of Jammeh but rather the APRC. “His statements are nothing more than an individual opinion. His position as ‘supreme leader’ is merely an honorary title,” he says. “If he doesn’t want to be part of our coalition, he can create a new party.”

Is Barrow underestimating the influence of the man who ruled Gambia with an iron fist for more than 20 years and whom he surprisingly defeated on 1 December 2016? “Barrow is quite sure of himself and believes that he can lean on his predecessor’s camp,” says an observer in Banjul. Both sides feel they are using each other.

Even before entering into the alliance with the APRC, Barrow had already agreed to get along with dignitaries from the former regime. “It started with technocrats that were not necessarily involved in the abuses. Then he negotiated with officials even more closely linked to Jammeh,” says the source. “We feel that he is surrounding himself more and more with those close to him.”

Going backwards?

Barrow – who was an unknown when he won the 2016 presidential election, thanks to the support of a broad opposition coalition – thinks he cannot be re-elected without this support. His fledgling party, which was officially launched earlier this year, is likely not strong enough to keep him in office. Therefore, it is in his interests to get closer to the APRC and its pool of votes, mostly from Jola voters (Jammeh’s ethnic group), which could tip the balance in his favour during the first round of voting scheduled for 4 December.

By getting closer to the APRC, Adama Barrow is in a way giving Yahya Jammeh back some kind of legitimacy.”

But in doing so, the Gambian President is playing a dangerous game. The agreement with the APRC shocked public opinion in Gambia, which is not convinced by the NPP’s argument that the APRC has not committed any crime “as a party”.

Many victims of the Jammeh regime are anxiously awaiting the report by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which was mandated by Barrow to shed light on crimes committed by his predecessor and those close to him. The TRCC had initially planned to hand over its findings to the head of state on 30 July, but this has been postponed indefinitely and will probably not take place before the election.

“By getting closer to the APRC, Barrow is in a way giving Jammeh back some kind of legitimacy,” says Almami Fanding Taal, a senior official from the United Democratic Party, which was formerly allied with Barrow.

Will the APRC-NPP agreement clear the path for the emblematic Ousainou Darboe, Barrow’s short-lived vice-president, who is now his most serious challenger? The oppositionist never misses an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to ensuring that Jammeh is prosecuted for his crimes. “Organising the [TRRC] hearings was easy, but delivering the report is another matter. It is very disappointing that the commission’s work has fallen behind schedule,” says Taal.

Victims and human rights activists are eagerly awaiting the report because it is expected to form the basis of a case against Jammeh and his allies.

Is Gambian public opinion concerned that Barrow may be tempted to sweep his promise of justice under the carpet? NPP dignitaries have not shied away from publicly saying that the former president could gain a lot from this alliance between the two parties. They have also revealed that they would like to see his assets returned to him. Barrow’s political opponents accuse him of having taken advantage of his stay in Guinea last August to negotiate with Jammeh via some of his colleagues who were in Conakry.

“Barrow finally shows his true colours”

“This agreement does not promote the right to the truth, but it is unrealistic to think that Jammeh could return next year to Gambia with a promise of amnesty. This would lay the foundations for serious instability in the country,” says human rights lawyer Fatou Jagne Senghore, but she calls it a “dangerous alliance”.

Jammeh’s recent comments on this subject could be a way of putting pressure on his successor. “As a politician, he understood that this alliance did not guarantee his return and that a shift from the APRC to the NPP would be dangerous for him,” says the lawyer.

It has especially discredited Barrow, who has already been heavily criticised for having failed to keep his promise to only serve as head of state for just three years. On 16 October, civil society organised a march dubbed ‘Never again’ in the streets of the capital to reaffirm its desire of seeing the TRRC’s recommendations respected. This was a direct message to the Gambian government.

“Barrow is finally showing his true colours,” says Senghore. “He may have won the election democratically, but he came to power because the country wanted to turn the page on years of dictatorship. Gambians are shocked that he is using these same democratic levers to validate an unholy alliance, which makes us question what we have really managed to achieve since Jammeh’s departure.”

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