If you think Donald Trump’s inauguration as president on Friday is going to be contentious, or even dangerous, take a look at what is happening in Gambia.
Yahya Jammeh, the president of the West African nation, has been in power since he staged a coup 22 years ago. But in a December 1 election, Gambians voted for his opponent, Adama Barrow, by a five point margin, according to the country’s electoral commission. Jammeh shocked just about everyone when he conceded defeat.
The result thrilled a nation thirsty for democracy. But it was too good to be true. A little more than a week later, Jammeh reneged on his concession and has since vowed to remain president. His inauguration is scheduled for Thursday. As it stands, Jammeh will simply hold on. Barrow is in self-imposed exile in neighboring Senegal. He missed the funeral of his 5-year-old son who was mauled by a dog on Sunday in Gambia.
Thursday is just around the corner, and the storm clouds of a major crisis are gathering.
Within the country, Jammeh has ordered the closing of three radio stations and the arrests of numerous opposition activists. Throughout his years in power, Jammeh has wielded the state police as a hammer against dissent.
Gambia’s national assembly, mostly filled by Jammeh loyalists, declared a 90-day state of emergency on Tuesday morning.
Small numbers of people are fleeing the country because of the political turmoil. They are just a fraction of those who already have left in the past. Jammeh’s failure to provide economic opportunity for Gambians had already plunged the country into crisis. Despite only having 2 million inhabitants, more people from Gambia than Pakistan – a nation almost 100 times its size – made the treacherous voyage across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The country’s ministers of communications, finance, foreign affairs, trade and the environment have resigned, as has the mayor of its capital city, Banjul. Gambia’s ambassador to the United States was recalled after imploring Jammeh to resign but fears returning home. The resignations are being seen as defections.
More surprisingly, West Africa’s regional bloc, known as ECOWAS, seems to be preparing to intervene militarily should Jammeh not step down.
Led by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, regional power brokers have been in and out of Banjul, trying to persuade Jammeh to concede before Thursday’s inauguration. On Monday, after yet another set of frustrating meetings with him, an unnamed Nigerian military source told Reuters that “some West African countries will be contributing troops, including Nigeria, for the operation,” adding that the United Nations and the African Union had offered support.
The Financial Times’ correspondent in Nigeria reported on Tuesday that the Nigerian military “has asked Britain to train 800 Nigerian troops as part of a joint force.” Britain is already training Nigerian soldiers while they fight Boko Haram in the country’s northeast.
The BBC reported that Nigeria has sent a “patrol vessel” to Gambia’s coast as a show of force and that Senegal is also preparing ground troops.
West Africa has seen a marked improvement in peaceful transitions of power after decades of coups. An ECOWAS intervention would send a clear signal that major players in West Africa, such as Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, which is sheltering Barrow, will enforce basic democratic processes in the region. ECOWAS nations have previously only sent troops to constituent countries during civil wars or as part of anti-terror operations. The bloc has not yet officially acknowledged any specific plans for military intervention in Gambia.
Beyond ECOWAS, the African Union has bluntly stated that it will not recognize Jammeh should he stay in power after Thursday. That sentiment has been echoed by the U.N. Security Council , the United States , the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. (Gambia is a majority-Muslim nation.)
What happens in the next few days will set a major regional precedent. Gambians as well as their neighbors saw a chance for change, and they aren’t ready to let it go just yet. But will regional powers really intervene against a despot?