- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

BANJUL, Gambia | It was an auspicious — and all too brief — moment of celebration and self-congratulation for a country and a continent: Gambians reveled in their president’s acceptance of defeat at the ballot box in his re-election bid earlier this month. It was a milestone moment in Africa, they said, one when a longtime strongman would step down peacefully after decades in office.

But in the past few days, President Yahya Jammeh reversed himself, rejected the results of the election and said he would demand a do-over. This country, the smallest on the African mainland, suddenly has become the focus of a furious regional effort to keep the democratic train from jumping the track.

Mr. Jammeh’s security forces on Tuesday blocked access to the electoral commission office, which insists the Dec. 1 vote was fair and accurate. Staffers were refused entry, even as several West African leaders arrived to urge the president to respect the election and try to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

“The president and all the entities have assured us that peace and stability will remain in Gambia as the decision process proceeds to a conclusion,” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told reporters, according to The Associated Press. Ms. Sirleaf was joined by other leaders from the West African regional economic bloc known as ECOWAS, including Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma and Ghanian President John Mahama, who also was just voted from office.

Regional leaders are set to meet again Saturday to discuss the crisis, Ms. Sirleaf said.

The prospect of a smooth transition appears to have dissolved. Mr. Jammeh’s ruling party is questioning why the vote counts were revised Dec. 5 and why some 360,000 registered voters did not make it to the polls. Many jaded residents of the nation of 1.9 million people say they let their hopes get ahead of their experience.

“Personally, I am not surprised,” said Fatima Sandeng, 28, a student who fled to neighboring Senegal in April after human rights groups reported that Jammeh administration officials tortured and killed her father, opposition leader Solo Sandeng, for advocating electoral reforms.

“He is a man who does not respect the constitution and the rights of the people,” said Ms. Sandeng. “But we were relaxed after he accepted the results and went quiet.”

After ruling with an iron fist since he seized power in a 1994 coup — he once said he would rule the West African nation for 1 billion years and assumed the official title of “excellency sheikh professor doctor president” — Mr. Jammeh conceded defeat to political newcomer Adama Barrow, a former real estate executive, on Dec. 2.

Many Gambians say they are sick and tired of the status quo under Mr. Jammeh.

Many have been emigrating to Europe in search of job opportunities. Yet the president risked Western sanctions following his decision to withdraw the country from the International Criminal Court and the commonwealth of former British colonies.

Mr. Jammeh has cracked down on civil society, too. Human rights groups say enforced disappearances, limits on the freedom of speech and the press, harassment of dissenters and other human rights violations have been widespread.

“I want to pay a special tribute to all those we have lost during this long fight for freedom: opposition members, journalists, ordinary citizens and all,” said Fatou Cisse, 38, a housewife in Banjul, the capital on the Atlantic coast. “It was like a dream come true when it was announced that Jammeh lost the election. The mood in the country changed to celebration.”

Mr. Jammeh’s initial decision to hand the reins of power to Mr. Barrow in January was hailed as a bright day for democracy in Africa. The response of the people was overwhelmingly positive, said Ibrahima Kane of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

“For a sitting president to lose an election was very impossible in Africa during the ‘80s, ‘90s and the early 2000s,” Mr. Kane said. “The Gambia experience is an indication that West Africa and Africa is ready for a change. Africa has come a long way, and other leaders who are suppressing their people should know that the wind of change is blowing.”

But Mr. Jammeh’s about-face has undercut that optimism, at a time when authoritarians still rule much of Africa.

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe refuses to step down even though, at age 92, he has been the country’s only leader since independence. In August, Gabonese President Ali Bongo won a second seven-year term amid criticism of the voting process. Mr. Bongo took over in 2009 after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, who ruled the country for 41 years. Last year, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza sparked a near civil war by running for a third term that was criticized as illegal.

In March, the president of the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou N’Guesso, won a third term after ruling for most of the previous 36 years. He changed his country’s laws to let him run again. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni won a fifth term in February after ruling the East African country for 30 years despite widespread condemnation of his crackdown against protests, a social media blackout and arrests of opposition figures. Rwandan President Paul Kagame pushed for a referendum last year to allow him to run for a third term next year.

Mr. Jammeh took a page from those leaders’ playbooks. He jailed his initial opponent, Ousainou Darboe, paving the way for Mr. Barrow. A real estate agent who formerly worked as a security guard at an Argos discount store in London, Mr. Barrow has pledged to rejoin the Commonwealth and International Criminal Court and reverse most of Mr. Jammeh’s controversial policies.

Gambians were eager for the first peaceful transfer of power to a democratic government, said Sainey MK Marena, a 31-year-old journalist who has been living in exile in Senegal for the past four years out of fear of imprisonment under Mr. Jammeh. Now they are likely to face a standoff.

“Jammeh’s move is an insult to Gambians who went out and voted for a change on Dec. 1,” he said. “Our country is currently in a state of chaos. No one knows how this will end. Military personnel have now been deployed along the streets, and people cannot walk freely. This is how dictators end. They never walk out quietly.”

As Ms. Sirleaf and other regional leaders consider their next steps, including a possible military intervention to prevent civil war, a movement is already afoot to hold mass demonstrations to protest Mr. Jammeh’s decision and ensure he leaves office next month, said activists.

“This is the simple tricks of dictators,” said Ishmyle Ceesay, a political scientist at the University of The Gambia in Banjul. “Let me make it clear: If Jammeh does not resign by Jan. 19, Gambia will burn. Mark my words. Enough is enough.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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