The Gambia: What Happens to Yahya Jammeh?

Last week, the Gambia’s post-electoral crisis came to a formal and relatively peaceful end. President Adama Barrow, who won election in December, took the oath of office at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal, on January 19, the constitutionally-mandated transition day. (You can watch the full ceremony here.)

Outgoing president and long-time ruler Yahya Jammeh had disputed the election results and refused to leave power. But Jammeh finally bowed to domestic, regional, and international pressure: he left the Gambia on January 21. It seems he may have taken a lot with him – as much as $11.4 million, if the Barrow team’s information is correct.

What comes next for Jammeh? That partly depends on what deals were struck between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Jammeh, and Barrow. As I wrote in an earlier post, rumors in the Senegalese press held that Jammeh was pushing for full immunity – financial and criminal – for himself, his family, and hundreds of associates.

There are contradictory signs about whether such a deal is in place. The joint statement from ECOWAS, the African Union, and the United Nations seemed to be not-so-subtly urging Barrow to avoid pursuing charges against Jammeh and his associates. An excerpt:

ECOWAS, the AU and the UN commit to work with the Government of The Gambia to ensure that it assures and ensures the dignity, respect, security and rights of HE former President Jammeh, as a citizen, a party leader and a former Head of State as provided for and guaranteed by the 1997 Gambian Constitution and other Laws of The Gambia.

Further, ECOWAS, the AU and the UN commit to work with the Government of The Gambia to ensure that it fully guarantees, assures and ensures the dignity, security, safety and rights of former President Jammeh’s immediate family, cabinet members, government officials, Security Officials and party supporters and loyalists.
ECOWAS, the AU and the UN commit to work with the Government of The Gambia to ensure that no legislative measures are taken by it that would be inconsistent with the previous two paragraphs.
ECOWAS, the AU and the UN urge the Government of The Gambia to take all necessary measures to assure and ensure that there is no intimidation, harassment and/or witch-hunting of former regime members and supporters, in conformity with the Constitution and other laws of The Gambia.

The relevant section of the Gambian Constitution is Chapter VI, Article 69 (.pdf).

The joint statement sounds a lot like immunity for Jammeh, and a strong signal from the international community to Barrow to leave Jammeh and his people alone.

But there are other signals from Barrow’s camp:

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Barrow said he wanted to create a truth and reconciliation committee to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during Mr Jammeh’s time in office.

This pledge is not nearly as strong as the promises of prosecution that came from Barrow’s team in December. Perhaps a truth and reconciliation committee would be more an exercise in collective memory and honesty than a body empowered to prosecute people and seize assets. But it is clear that Barrow does not seem to simply wish to move on.

African leaders’ attitudes toward Jammeh are affected, it seems to me, by two basic considerations. First, as ECOWAS’ posture makes clear, Jammeh was widely disliked and mistrusted by his peers. The swiftness and decisiveness of ECOWAS’ rejection of Jammeh, including its rapid deployment of troops to enforce its directive, does not represent the usual posture of African heads of state toward their peers. Jammeh’s fall was not inevitable; had he been more popular and had he managed things differently, he would likely still be in power.

But second, even though they dislike him, some African heads of state have an incentive to see that Jammeh is not prosecuted. Penalties for Jammeh and his associates would set a precedent where African heads of state are held accountable for crimes committed in office (or, if one counts the trial of Hissene Habre in neighboring Senegal, Jammeh’s prosecution would strengthen that precedent). I suspect, too, that the prospect of domestic punishment worries other autocrats more than the prospect of trial at the International Criminal Court or some other international forum. So it seems that some of Africa’s “presidents for life” will feel better about their own retirement prospects if Jammeh can enjoy a peaceful exile somewhere, without facing charges in his own country.

For my own part, I think that he should be held accountable to the extent possible under the Gambian Constitution. But the matter is for the new president and the Gambian people to decide.

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5 thoughts on “The Gambia: What Happens to Yahya Jammeh?

  1. The wordings “ensures the dignity, respect, security and rights” and “no intimidation, harassment and/or witch-hunting” doesnt exclude the possibility of letting him and his associates in crime have a fair trial. Although it will be hard to get him out of Equatorial Guinea nothing stops the Gambians from going after his assets.

    • I agree. I think the wording could be interpreted in multiple ways. But as you and John point out, being in Equatorial Guinea will make him hard to touch.

  2. Pingback: The Gambia: Key People Around President Adama Barrow | Sahel Blog

  3. Pingback: A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Gambia | Sahel Blog

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