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Why did Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh concede defeat

Yahya Jammeh

Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh has ruthlessly pursued opponents real and imaginary, and implied more than once that he would kill anyone who defied him.

His magnanimous concession speech and promise of a swift handover to president-elect Adama Barrow after 22 years in power has therefore left many scratching their heads a week after the election.

Opposition figures and analysts believe he may have been caught out by his own fawning entourage, who reassured him so frequently he would win that the counter possibility never occurred to him.

After an unprecedented two-week opposition campaign, Jammeh rumbled into Banjul’s cricket ground in a 4X4 and predicted his best score ever on December 1, election day.

“By the grace of the almighty Allah, there will be the biggest landslide in the history of my elections,” said Jammeh, wearing his usual white robes and sunglasses, a Koran in one hand.

The collision of his arrogance, changes to election rules and an opposition organised and united for the first time ever meant that, by the time Jammeh worked out what had happened by nightfall, it was too late.

Gambia observer Jim Wormington of Human Rights Watch told AFP that Jammeh relied on the same tactics that had delivered four previous electoral victories, without accounting for the work done by the opposition to build support.

“Jammeh believed… his domination of state media, mobilising of local officials in support of his candidacy, muzzling of independent journalists and imprisonment of key opposition figures, would once again guarantee victory,” Wormington told AFP.

– Blackout –

But several factors had changed since Jammeh’s 2011 re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote.

Analyst Mathias Hounkpe of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) said on-the-spot counting used for the first time in a presidential election may have made it difficult to fix the polls in his favour.

“The announcement of results at the polling station level could have allowed the margin of fraud to be reduced in comparison with the past,” Hounkpe said.

This did not prevent a central polling error that was only corrected on Monday that showed Barrow had won by just over 19,000 votes, a slimmer margin than first thought.

Essentially, Barrow’s opposition coalition may not have had a fair fight, but they had a free one, according to Wormington.

“Gambians — on election day itself — were able to vote freely for the candidate of their choice,” he said.

Allegations of electoral fraud in previous years may be moot anyway, according to some observers.

One western diplomat based in the region said it was “unlikely the result would have been different if rigging had happened” in previous elections, as the opposition vote was split and the parties weak.

Alieu Momar Njie, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission, was watching the votes being counted on election night when state broadcaster GRTS informed him that its scheduled coverage would stop.

“When (Jammeh) found out he had lost the election he informed the television managing director who put on hold the announcement of the results because he was going to concede defeat through the television,” Njie said.

The Gambia’s GRTS channel was switched to Koranic recitals to await Jammeh’s announcement, but he decided not to appear, leaving confusion over the result and a vacuum of information that quickly filled with rumours.

An internet shutdown and the blocking of text messages only fed the sense of a conspiracy building.

Very few people know exactly what happened between then and Njie’s announcement late Friday morning that Jammeh would concede.

Media in neighbouring Senegal has said Jammeh was persuaded by senior military figures to respect the result, while others have said he was given an ultimatum to accept or lose their support.

Regardless, the military did not stop the result being delivered, if later than planned, and Jammeh conceded defeat later Friday.

– Coalition test –

OSIWA’s Hounkpe noted that Jammeh’s relaxed demeanour in his televised concession speech “didn’t give the impression that something was about to happen to him”.

By then, according to one Gambian diplomat working in another west African nation and with close links to the president, Barrow had guaranteed Jammeh his safety.

The president was asked to tell his soldiers to “stay calm” in return, the diplomat told AFP.

Barrow told AFP on the morning after the vote he was “certain” of victory, and by afternoon he was the president-elect.

The coalition’s first big test will be managing an outpouring of anger at Jammeh, a man who repressed so many for so long, but who still enjoys significant support.

For the moment, calls for prosecution have been delicately sidestepped by the most senior members of Barrow’s team, as they oversee a delicate transition period.

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