Updated: 12:30 p.m E.T.
Gambia’s president-elect, Adama Barrow, has been sworn in in an embassy in neighboring Senegal Thursday, as his predecessor refuses to relinquish power despite last-minute diplomatic efforts and a threat from other West African states to remove him by force.
Thursday is a critical day in the six-week political crisis that has engulfed the West African nation since Yahya Jammeh, a strongman who has ruled since seizing power in a military coup in 1994, announced last month that he was moving to have the election results annulled, just days after having conceded defeat.
Under Gambia’s constitution, Jammeh’s mandate expired at midnight Wednesday. Observers watched nervously overnight to see if troops from Nigeria, Mali, Togo, Ghana, and Senegal, stationed along Senegal’s border, would act following a threat from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to remove Jammeh if he did not go peacefully.
But Thursday dawned with neither military intervention nor news that Jammeh was gone – continuing the political vacuum that has driven tens of thousands of Gambians to flee the country in recent weeks, fearing violence. Thousands of Western tourists have also scrambled for flights out of the country, impacting the country’s economically vital tourism sector.
Meanwhile, Barrow proceeded with the inauguration despite being in effective exile in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The inauguration had previously been scheduled to be held in Gambia’s national stadium.
How did we get here?
The Dec. 1 presidential election produced a shock result, with 51-year-old Barrow – a real estate developer who was selected as candidate despite having never held political office – beating the president of 22 years. Jammeh initially conceded defeat and pledged on state television to work with Barrow in the run-up to his inauguration.
But just a week later, Jammeh announced on state television that he rejected the outcome, alleging voting irregularities. He called for fresh elections and petitioned the Supreme Court to nullify the results – a decision that could take months, after the chief justice recused himself. On Tuesday, he imposed a 90-day state of emergency, suspending the constitution and extending his rule until the Supreme Court could consider the issue.
Marloes Janson, West African expert at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, told VICE News that besides his hunger for power, Jammeh’s reluctance to step aside may be driven by a fear that the new administration may put him on trial for alleged human rights abuses. Human rights groups have accused the leader of forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detentions, among other abuses, with Human Rights Watch saying the country’s citizens live under a cloud of fear.
What’s the current situation?
ECOWAS and the African Union say they will recognize Barrow as the president after his swearing-in on Thursday. Out of concern for his safety, Barrow has been in exile in Dakar – forcing him to miss the funeral of his 8-year-old son, who died after being bitten by a dog in Gambia’s capital, Banjul, on Sunday.
Regional leaders have been involved in repeated efforts to encourage Jammeh to step aside in recent months, including last-minute attempts by Mauritania and Senegal, to no avail.
There have also been offers of asylum in Nigeria and Morocco, his wife’s home country, as regional powers attempt to broker a peaceful solution. Janson said Jammeh may be wary of taking up Liberia’s offer, as it handed over Liberian warlord Charles Taylor to the International Criminal Court after he sought asylum in the country.
What will happen next?
Jammeh, whose whereabouts are unknown, appears to lack the support he’d need to stay in power. According to reports, the chief of the army, Ousman Badjie, has said he will not involve his troops if ECOWAS states enter the country to remove Jammeh. Badjie had pledged to support Barrow but later changed his affiliation, according to Janson. Even if the Gambian army did put up resistance, it would likely be no match for the regional forces, she said.
Jammeh’s vice president, Isatou Njie-Seedy, who has held the office since 1997, is the latest and most senior of his political allies to abandon him, according to reports. But Jammeh is as unpredictable as he is autocratic, says Janson, citing his moves in recent years to withdraw his country from the Commonwealth and International Criminal Court, and declare the country an Islamic state.
As a ruler who once pledged to rule his country for a billion years, Jammeh would likely not give up without a fight, she added. “He’s trying to find the best solution for him … But I’m 100 percent sure he’s not fearing war. If that gives him what he wants, he will fight.”