If Banjul’s buffoon stays, Africa suffers
There is no need to ask why Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh changed his mind and minced his words. After 22 years in power, Jammeh has learnt that mincing his words makes them easier to swallow.
Forget the nonsense about evidence of vote rigging and the call for a God-fearing umpire to conduct fresh elections. Jammeh, a self-proclaimed god, has been at the helm for 22 years. Suddenly, he is at a loss regarding what happened to his omnipotence.
He knew that once the results were announced and his challenger, Adama Barrow, was declared the winner after receiving 43.2% of the votes – compared with his 39.6% – the game was over. The only thing left – his last card – was to eat his words and, in an empty ritual to suggest he was still in charge, he deployed troops in the streets of the capital, Banjul, and around the country.
Jammeh’s grandstanding is a ploy to negotiate a safe passage for himself, and a soft landing for his Mandinka tribesmen in the military – 200 of whom he promoted in one week. It has nothing to do with the misery of the nearly 2 million citizens who live from hand to mouth.
The peace initiative by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and other leaders who form part of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is a good starting point. If the leaders were under any illusion that the buffoon of Banjul would go without a fight, they must be wiser now, after he made empty promises in private talks to step down.
Buhari and company had not departed from Banjul when Jammeh deployed troops in the electoral commission’s headquarters and authorised his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, to formally file a complaint at the Supreme Court, rejecting the result of the poll.
But how will judgment come from an empty Bench? The Nigeria-born Chief Justice, Emmanuel Fagbenle, was reportedly fired in May, and neither he nor any of the other six judges appointed by the president has been replaced. Yet Jammeh must leave by January 19.
We have seen this nonsense before from the playbook of Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor, and, more recently, the Ivory Coast’s former president, Laurent Gbagbo. Dictators, whether they are illiterates like Taylor or professors like Gbagbo, never go away peacefully. They will try to take the country down with them, if they can.
It is more complicated if they have stolen, silenced the opposition and shed blood to remain in power. Jammeh has made a name for himself in these ways and, apart from his bloodstained hand, he also has a Rolls-Royce, valued at £700 000 (R12.2 million), to show for it.
When he seized power in 1994, he was a young lieutenant on a meagre salary. But, in a few years, he managed to amass what his predecessor, Dawda Jawara, could not dream of, even after ruling Gambia as prime minister and president for 32 years.
In an email sent to me on Wednesday, a businessman, who is a frequent visitor to Banjul, said Jammeh “controls all the profitable businesses in Gambia, from farming [and] oil [to] real estate, even down to bakeries scattered all over the country”. There are also unconfirmed reports that, thanks to his Moroccan wife Zeinab, he owns one of the best shopping malls in Morocco.
With this extraordinary business chain, it is not surprising that Jammeh wants to hang on to power. But how can he explain that, even though Gambia relies on donor funding and is one of the poorest countries in Africa, he still robs it?
He does not care, nor will he permit those who hold a different point of view to express it.
He has built what he refers to as “The Mile 2 Hotel”, but it is known to the public, especially those who dare to cross him, as Mile 2, Jammeh’s infamous prison.
In 2004, he warned journalists to toe the government’s line or “go to hell”. No one knew what that meant until Deyda Hydara, the editor of independent newspaper The Point, defied government. Hydara has since disappeared amid strong suspicions that he was murdered by state agents.
But Jammeh’s iron fist was not reserved for Gambians alone.
The man who boasted that he would rule for a billion years was linked to the killing of 44 Ghanaian migrants about a decade ago. Initially denying knowledge of the killings, he later agreed to pay $500 000 (R7 million) to the victims’ families.
Jammeh has long been a problem, but Ecowas members did not pay him much attention until after the 2011 polls, which the body declared were deeply flawed. Even though Jammeh said at the time that there was no way he could lose – except “if the Gambian people are all mad” – this was an election in which he was candidate, voter and umpire all by himself. He did it in three previous elections and got away with it. So, if Ecowas members think this one will be different, they are wrong. It is not Jammeh’s fault. He is used to a continent led by uninspiring leaders, to say the least. Is it the scandalwracked President Jacob Zuma who will point a finger at Jammeh, or Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan, who was almost overrun by terror group Boko Haram? In a show of contempt for the continent’s leaders, Jammeh refused landing rights to the plane flying Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current chair of Ecowas, to Gambia’s Banjul airport last weekend. She had to be escorted by three regional leaders – Buhari, Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma and Ghana’s John Mahama, who himself had just lost an election. Amassing troops around the headquarters of the electoral commission and militarising the streets even before Buhari and company were airborne out of Banjul are signs of desperation and cowardice. We have seen it before in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. There will be presidential elections in four African countries in 2017 – Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda and Somaliland. What happens in Gambia could determine how far Jammeh’s bad habit may spread. It will be a major setback for the continent if the gains made by the peaceful transfer of power in Nigeria and Ghana are eroded by the madness in Banjul. The buffoon must be removed immediately. This is the most important task for the Ecowas leaders as they meet in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, this weekend. Ishiekwene is the managing director and editor-in-chief of The Interview magazine and a member of the Paris-based board of the Global Editors Network