The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many people want Gambia’s leader to step down — including his ambassador in Washington

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has been in power for more than 22 years. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)
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NAIROBI — In less than a week, the tiny country of Gambia has gone from a symbol of democratic promise in Africa to an example of the enduring power of dictatorships on the continent.

That swift change, like almost everything else that has happened in Gambia in the past two decades, was the product of one man: President Yahya Jammeh.

Earlier this month, after more than 22 years in power, Jammeh shocked the world by announcing that he had conceded the presidential election. Activists rejoiced at what appeared to be a peaceful transition of power. Maybe Gambia would morph into West Africa’s democratic beacon, some suggested. Then, a week later, Jammeh changed his mind, saying he had “decided to reject the outcome.”

His U-turn has prompted calls from the United Nations and a host of African leaders for him to step down. And on Tuesday, an even more surprising anti-Jammeh call came through — this time, from his own ambassador in Washington.

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In a statement, Ambassador Sheikh Omar Faye said that Jammeh’s reversal “has created a serious post-election crisis and put The Gambia on a dangerous path.”

He continued: “I find it morally difficult to remain silent while Gambians are in fear and uncertainty.”

Faye’s statement was released just as a high-level delegation of African leaders, including the presidents of Liberia, Nigeria and Ghana, arrived in Gambia to persuade Jammeh to step down. On Tuesday afternoon, the BBC reported that Gambian security forces had seized the country's electoral commission headquarters and would not allow employees to enter.

According to the official results, Jammeh was defeated by Adama Barrow, a real estate agent and former security guard with little political experience. Jammeh said the results were marred by “serious and unacceptable abnormalities,” but he did not offer any evidence.

As of Tuesday, it remained unclear whether the delegation or critics such as Faye would succeed in their efforts. Jammeh, who came to power in a military coup, is a mercurial leader who once said he would rule for a billion years. Human rights groups say he has imprisoned and threatened his opponents. Dissent within the government is rare, and the country’s patronage network is small but powerful.

That is what makes Faye’s statement so surprising. At least publicly, he has been a Jammeh loyalist. In July, the military veteran and former minister said of Jammeh: “There have been big leaps, big improvements, what I will call colossal gains, under him.”

Is Faye’s new criticism a sign that Jammeh’s regime is beginning to crack? Or will Jammeh retain enough power, particularly within the military and police, to quash opponents?

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Reporters in Banjul and Serrekunda, Gambia’s two largest cities, reported seeing police and military patrolling with their weapons. It appeared, at least at the highest ranks, that officers had remained loyal to Jammeh. But it is unclear whether soldiers and police have received special orders in the wake of his rejection of the election results.

Jammeh said he will appeal to the country's supreme court to resolve the impasse. But while Gambia has a chief justice, it does not currently have a supreme court, and more judges would have to be appointed to review the case. If Jammeh appoints them, few will respect the court’s decision.

“The Chief Justice has been known to carry executive directives in matters of the state interest,” the Gambian Bar Association said in a statement Tuesday.

On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, described the situation in Gambia as “very dangerous.” She also requested Jammeh to respect the election results.

During much of his rule, thousands of Gambians have fled the country, migrating through Libya and across the Mediterranean. Although Jammeh was invited to the White House in 2014 for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, he was mocked across much of Africa as irrational for his quixotic, unfounded claims (including that he could cure AIDS with local herbs). If he were to remain in power despite the urgings of the international community, the regime would probably find itself even more alienated.