There’s no need asking why Gambian President Yahya Jammeh changed his mind and minced his words. After 22 years in power, Jammeh has learnt that mincing his words make them easier to swallow.
Forget the nonsense about evidence of vote rigging and the call for a God-fearing umpire to conduct fresh elections. Jammeh has been man and God for 22 years, and suddenly, he’s at a loss about what happened to his omnipotence.
He knew that once the results were announced and his challenger, Adama Barrow, was declared the winner after receiving 43 percent of the votes, the game was over.
The only thing left – his last card – was to eat his words and in an empty ritual to suggest he was still in charge, he deployed troops in the streets of Banjul and around the country.
But the show of force is really a desperate cry for help. Jammeh needs to be saved from the evil created by his own iron fist.
His grandstanding is a ploy to negotiate safe passage for himself and a soft landing for swathes of his Mandinka tribesmen in the military 200 of whom he promoted in one week. It has nothing to do with the misery of the nearly two million citizens who live from hand to mouth.
The peace initiative by President Muhammadu Buhari and other ECOWAS leaders is a good starting point. If the leaders were under any illusion that the buffoon of Banjul will go without a fight, however, they must be wiser after he made empty promises in private to step down.
Buhari and co had not departed from Banjul when Jammeh deployed troops in the electoral commission headquarters and authorized his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, to formally file a complaint at the Supreme Court, rejecting the result of the poll.
But how will judgment come from an empty Bench? The Nigerian chief justice, Emmanuel Fagbenle, was reportedly fired in May and neither he nor any of the other six judges appointed by the president has been replaced, yet Jammeh must leave by January 19.
We have seen this nonsense before from the playbook of Charles Taylor and more recently, from that of the former Ivorian President, Laurent Gbagbo.
Dictators, whether they are illiterates like Taylor or professors like Gbagbo, never go away peacefully. They will try to take the country down with themselves, if they can.
It’s more complicated if they have stolen massively, silenced opposition and shed blood to remain in power. Jammeh has made a name for himself in each of these areas and apart from his blood stained hand, he also has a Rolls Royce valued at £700,000 to show for it.
When he seized power in 1994, he was a young Lieutenant on a meager salary. But in a few years, he managed to amass what Dawda Jawara could not dream of even after ruling The Gambia as prime minister and president for 32 years.
In an email to me on Wednesday, a businessman who is a frequent visitor to Banjul, said Jammeh “controls all the profitable businesses in Gambia, from farming, oil, real estate, even down to bakeries scattered all over the country.”
There are also unconfirmed reports that, thanks to his Moroccan wife, Zeinab, he owns one of the best shopping malls in Morocco, which he unsuccessfully invited Muammar Ghadaffi to open.
With this extraordinary business chain, it is not surprising that Jammeh wants to hang on to power. But how can he explain that even though The Gambia relies on donor funding and is one of the poorest in Africa, he still robs his country that is on life support?
That’s not his business, really. And he neither cares nor will he permit those who have a different point of view to express it. He has built a place, which he ingeniously calls a “hotel,” but is known to the public, especially those who dare to cross his path, as Mile 2: It is Jammeh’s infamous prison.
In 2004, he warned journalists to either toe the government’s line or “go to hell.” No one was exactly sure what that meant until the editor of an independent newspaper, Deyda Hydara, whose newspaper, Point, defied the government. Hydara has since disappeared, murdered by government agents.
But Jammeh’s iron fist was not reserved for Gambians alone. The man who boasted that he would rule for a billion years was linked to the killings of 44 Ghanaian migrants about a decade ago. He initially denied knowledge of the killings only for him to accept later that he would pay $500,000 to the families of the victims.
Jammeh has been a long problem incubating, but ECOWAS didn’t pay any serious attention until after the 2011 elections, which the regional body declared were deeply flawed.
Even though Jammeh said at the time that he didn’t “look like a loser” and there was no way he could lose, except “if the Gambian people are all mad,” that was one election in which he was a candidate, voter and umpire all by himself.
He has done it in three previous elections and gotten away with it; if ECOWAS thinks this one will be different, then it’s joking.
It’s not Jammeh’s fault. He’s used to a continent led by uninspiring leaders, to say the least. Is it the scandal-wracked Jacob Zuma of South Africa that will point the finger at Jammeh or Goodluck Jonathan who was almost buried by thieves and overrun by Boko Haram?
It is a measure of his contempt for the continent’s leaders that Jammeh will refuse Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s plane from landing and the ECOWAS leader will have to be escorted by three other regional leaders, including Buhari and Ghana’s John Mahama who himself had just lost an election, to see the Boys Scout in Banjul.
Massing troops around the headquarters of the electoral commission and militarizing the streets even before Buhari and co were airborne from Banjul are signs of desperation and cowardice. We’ve seen it before in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.
And the lesson from these places is that cowards are to be confronted and removed, not pampered and appeased.
There would be presidential elections in four African countries in 2017 – Kenya, Liberia, Rwanda and Somaliland. The elections in the first two countries would be consequential and what happens in The Gambia could determine how far Jammeh’s bad habit may spread.
It will be a major setback for the continent if the gains in the peaceful and orderly transfer of power in Nigeria and Ghana are eroded by the madness in Banjul.
The buffoon must be removed immediately. This is the single most important task for Buhari and other ECOWAS leaders as they meet in Abuja this weekend.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview magazine and member of the Paris-based board of the Global Editors Network.