The president of The Gambia has declared a state of emergency in the west African country two days before he is due to leave office.
The declaration is the latest in a series of attempts by Yahya Jammeh to hang onto power beyond his current tally of 22 years. Adama Barrow, a former estate agent who beat Jammeh in the December election, is due to be inaugurated on Thursday, but the incumbent is refusing to leave.
Thousands of Gambians are fleeing the country or sending their children abroad, afraid that the regional organisation ECOWAS will make good on its promise to resort to force to remove Jammeh if necessary. Hundreds of women and children balancing suitcases on their heads took the ferry out of Banjul, the country’s capital, on Tuesday, many bound for the border.
“Everybody’s leaving,” said one Gambian immigration official. “They’re worried there might be war.”
Jammeh said he was making the order “to prevent a constitutional crisis and power vacuum”, although Barrow, who is currently in Senegal, is poised to return to Gambian soil at midnight on Wednesday under heavy security to be sworn in as The Gambia’s first new president in more than two decades.
“I hereby declare a state of public emergency throughout The Gambia, as a situation exists, which if it is allowed to continue, will lead to a state of public emergency,” Jammeh told the nation over national radio and television. As the president’s voice boomed out from an old radio in Churchill’s Town in Serrekunda, welders stopped their work momentarily to listen.
Under the state of emergency, the constitution and citizens’ rights can be suspended, and the president can rule by presidential decree. Jammeh made the order despite the fact that parliament had not yet agreed to it.
However, as he spoke, the matter was being discussed by the national assembly, and with most of the country’s opposition lying low, every member spoke in favour of it. By the constitution, a state of emergency last seven days, but in the same order, the national assembly extended it until July.
Jammeh initially accepted the results of the election but later declared it null, saying the electoral commission had made errors. He took his case to the supreme court, but there were no judges to hear it, so it has been delayed until May. Then Jammeh tried to bring an injunction to stop Barrow attending his own inauguration, but the country’s chief justice said he could not rule on it.
Several mediating missions by the Nigerian and Liberian presidents have failed to result in a deal.
“He’s trying every trick he can think of to appear strong to local supporters and to appear peaceful to the international community, but he can’t change what’s coming. There are so many deals he should have taken,” a legal expert in Banjul said. “Perhaps he will wait until the last possible minute and then take a deal.”
One of these deals offered to Jammeh is a “golden retirement” in Morocco, according to local reports, as long as he steps down. Nigeria has also apparently offered him asylum.