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With Jammeh gone, Gambia's future still 'up in the air'

January 22, 2017

Yahya Jammeh has left The Gambia for Equatorial Guinea and President Adama Barrow is set to return. Analyst Peter Penar told DW that there are still many hurdles facing the small West African country.

Ex-Präsident Jammeh verlässt Gambia
Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Delay

DW: Reports have it that Yahya Jammeh is leaving open a small window and that he could return after the situation is "clear." Do you think that is an option for him?

Peter Penar: I think that could be an option for him, but it's a very dangerous option and it's one that I expect many ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) member states are against. There are variety of reasons for that. If he did return to the country, due to the fact that he still has some support on the ground, and the fact that he got votes in the election, it will make it difficult for the new government to get things off the ground. Those areas of support could be mobilized in potentially violent ways, or even in non-violent ways, against President Adama Barrow . It could destabilize the country in the long term, particularly at a time when The Gambia is in a precarious position. But there's one thing to note on this point, which is that The Gambia's parliamentary elections are scheduled for early April. Although, it could be that they are postponed for a period of time so that the country achieves more stability before elections are held. In previous parliamentary elections, Jammeh's party held all but one parliamentary seat. So he has a lot of loyalists in parliament. In the up-coming legislative elections, there is a chance that he could come back in some sort of form. This would be very destabilizing. So ECOWAS would be very concerned about Jammeh's potential return to politics.

There are reports that one of the reasons Jammeh delayed his departure, and the announcement that he would be stepping down, was to secure outs for his supporters. Is there any chance that these people are leaving with him?

When we look at the last few weeks, we see that a number of his loyalists, his close ministers, for example, have resigned from their positions. Some have actually left the country. They've deserted Jammeh. We can see that over the crisis period, particularly amongst the military, there were many people who at first sat on the fence. They pledged their loyalty to the president-elect Barrow, and then after the dispute began, they pledged their allegiance to former president Jammeh. Now they are again claiming that they support President Barrow. People have been very unsure and have been trying to navigate this new situation. In a major transition period a lot of things are up in the air. The question really is how Barrow is going to deal with Jammeh's loyalists. Is he going to include them in some form in his government? Is he going to work with them in some way? And how is that really going to look in practice? A lot of those potential loyalists may support Jammeh's return to politics in some form and are really in a wait-and-see pattern based on how President Barrow deals with the current political concerns.

Gambia Machtwechsel - Präsident Adama Barrow in Dakar, Senegal
Gambia's President Adama Barrow (center) preparing to return to GambiaImage: Reuters/S. Shadid

Barrow has low representation in parliament, is this going to prove problematic for him?

I think in the short run it will prove fairly problematic. As you saw last week, parliament tried to extend former president Jammeh's rule for 90 days. Those loyalists are still willing to support him and there is definitely some level of support there. Now, perhaps, their loyalty is up in the air. We can assume that they're ready to get on the Barrow train. But this means that Barrow is going to face a lot of obstacles to reform in the next few months when this parliament sits. Until new parliamentary elections have taken place, it will be difficult. And new parliamentary elections may not even remove those obstacles. A lot of members who are loyal to Jammeh, or have been in Jammeh's party for years, may run in the up-coming parliamentary elections and gain substantial power. In a parliament with only 53 seats, if a number of seats are picked up by Jammeh loyalists, there will be major obstacles for Barrow.

Do you think that ECOWAS would have intervened like they did in The Gambia had this been in Nigeria or Ghana?

When we think of regional bodies, any international organization, we think of them in terms of who the regional hegemons are. Nigeria and Ghana are two of the major regional hegemons, both in economic power, but also military power. And it's very hard to see ECOWAS moving without those two countries, particularly Nigeria, on board. So what happens if an election crisis occurs in one of the hegemons, such as Nigeria? It's very unlikely that ECOWAS would have been able to act so swiftly and in such a unified way if such a situation had occurreds in a large country. However, the counter-point to this is the situation in Ivory Coast that took place in 2010 and 2011. In that situation, President Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede the election. ECOWAS said that he needed to step down and give power to the newly elected President, Alassane Ouattara. In that situation ECOWAS did act militarily, with the support of rebels who were loyal to Ouattara at the time. ECOWAS was able to deal with that situation in the Ivory Coast, which like Nigeria and Ghana is a major economic and military power in the region. So there is some precedence for ECOWAS taking action in the so-called important countries in ECOWAS. But with a country like Nigeria being as pivotal as it is, it is fairly unlikely that ECOWAS would be able to act as swiftly and in such a unified way as it did.

Peter Penar is a researcher at Michigan State University focusing on power transitions and regional organizations.