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Africa

Election stand-off in Gambia intensifies

The debate over the crisis in Gambia has moved to social media where users are airing their views on a call for military intervention. Opinions are divided and many hope that the use of force will be the last resort

In the Gambia, the political situation remains tense as uncertainty grows over the future of the country's leadership. The ministers for finance, foreign affairs, trade and environment have resigned from President Yahya Jammeh's government, according to state television. Although he initially conceded defeat to rival Adama Barrow following the election in December, President Yahya Jammeh is refusing to step down. The Economic Community of West-African States (ECOWAS) is weighing the possibility of  military invention. 

The events unfolding in The Gambia, one of the smallest nations in the world, present a crucial test for the regional body’s commitment to their principle of zero tolerance for power obtained unconstitutionally. Social media is reacting strongly and opinions are divided over the possibility of a military approach.

Gambia Wahlen Yahya Jammeh (Reuters/C. Garcia Ralins)

President Yahya Jammeh refuses to hand over power to his successor

Many Gambians oppose a military intervention and are pleading instead for more diplomatic efforts. Some favor a safe exit from office for President Jammeh without prosecution in the interests of peace in the country. They fear that thousands of civilians could be killed should it come to a military intervention. Others say that all avenues have already been exhausted and that the only way to get rid of the president is to force him to step down.  

Gambians divided 

"Military intervention in Gambia, as elsewhere, should be an absolute last resort. However, Jammeh is unhinged and does not do diplomacy," analyst Jeffrey Smith tweeted last week. 

Alex Agboada commented on DW Africa's Facebook page that "ECOWAS leaders used diplomatic approach to convince him to give up his intention of holding onto power but he refused, so diplomatic approaches have been exhausted. We could impose economic sanctions but it will end up affecting rather the people than Yahaya Jammeh. A military intervention is the only way out now." 

Gambians fear bloodshed if Jammeh does not step down before the planned inauguration on Thursday.

Jammeh's successor, president-elect Adama Barrow, is scheduled to take power on January 19. He has taken refuge in Senegal ahead of his planned inauguration. But Jammeh has made clear that he will not stand aside until the supreme court has ruled on a petition he has submitted rejecting Barrow's victory. However, the court has not been in operation for a year and a ruling isn't expected before May. 

#Gambiahasdecided 

"President Jammeh has no legal means to get the court sitting again," said Salieu Taal, a lawyer and a co-founder of the #Gambiahasdecided movement. "He does not have the power anymore. He does not accept the will of the people." Taal had to flee to neighboring Senegal when he realized that his life was at risk, he claimed. 

Gambia Adama Barrow gewählter Präsident (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay)

Gambia's President-elect Adama Barrow has taken refuge in Senegal

His movement aims to ensure that the voice of people is heard. That poses a threat to Jammeh and his supporters. "ECOWAS did a great job when the leaders tried to mediate a deal with the Gambian government but all channels are exhausted. Now the only step is the use of force," he said.

ECOWAS has repeatedly called on Jammeh to respect the result of the December 1 vote and step down. The regional body is running out of patience and said it would stage a military intervention led by neighboring Senegal. That threat of violence has caused Gambia's president to denounce this move as a "declaration of war."  

"There will be a muddled period after the 19th of January," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa Program at Chatham House in the UK. "President Jammeh and his supporters will say that this inauguration is not legitimate and he will stay in office until the supreme court's ruling. That means that we have a stand-off between the Jammeh people and the supporters of Adama Barrow," he added. 

Gambia Wahlen (picture alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay)

Gambians voted against their President Yahya Jammeh in December

A recent meeting between Jammeh and other ECOWAS leaders in The Gambia last week failed broker a deal. The visiting ECOWAS heads of state had tried to persuade Jammeh to step down.

"That means a period of turbulence and instability for Gambian politics. There will be much more efforts to mediate and ECOWAS has signaled that they are not considering any military response at the moment to events in the Gambia," said Vines. "This is not a good situation for Gambia. There could be two factions of power contesting each other." 

Senegal's crucial role

The 15-member regional group ECOWAS was initially set up as a trading bloc but it has increasingly pursued a political agenda of trying to ensure that countries abide by the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance. The aim is to protect civilian governments from military coups and to prevent civil conflict in West Africa generally. 

Gambia is surrounded by Senegal on three sides and Senegal has a long tradition of democracy and of a multi-party approach to politics. This could play a crucial role in overcoming the standoff in Gambia. According to Vines, it is no coincidence that Jammeh's opponent, Adama Barrow,  sought refuge in Senegal.

"If ECOWAS ever does mandate a military operation in support of Adama Barrow, then it will come from Senegal," said Vines. "But I don't think that ECPWAS has the appetite to escalate the military side of things. Hopefully Barrow will have the moral high-ground to return unarmed."

According to Vines, Barrow has not sought a military confrontation at this stage.

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