GAMBIAN president Yahya Jammeh has warned that a standoff with neighbouring West African states over his refusal to step aside after losing December’s election will escalate into war, if regional bloc doesn’t back off its demand that he hand over power.
Speaking in a televised New Year’s address, Jammeh said the stance by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to take “all necessary actions” to enforce the Dec. 2 election results violates a principle of “non-interference” and is “in effect a declaration of war.”
“Let me make it very clear that we are ready to defend this country against any aggression and there will be no compromise,” he said. “Defending our sovereignty and total independence of our country is a sacred duty of all patriotic Gambians, moreso of the Gambian Armed Forces.”
Jammeh reversed himself last month after initially accepting opposition leader Adama Barrow’s victory, then a few days later reject the results as illegitimate. Jammeh, who seized power in a coup 22 years ago, has called for a new vote after the Independent Electoral Commission on Dec. 5 flagged tally errors in the original results.
The new results reduced Barrow’s margin of victory, but still left Jammeh behind.
If the 15-member ECOWAS indeed pushes ahead to confront Jammeh, and he stands his ground, what are his chances?
Gambia, which is all but surrounded by Senegal, is the smallest country on mainland Africa in both size and population. It has a population of nearly 2 million.
It also has its smallest military. Estimates in 2013 placed the Gambian National Army (GNA) at 1,000, including 100 airforce personnel.
By contrast, his leading regional critic, Senegal, whose military in August 1981 intervened in the Gambia at the invitation of President Dawda Kairaba Jawara to put down a coup attempt, has an army of about 20,000.
And Nigeria, the regional superpower, has 130,000 active military personnel, and an Airforce that is over 10,000 in size.
At its height in 1977, the Nigerian military was 250,000 strong. Currently, the Nigerian police in the African Union Somalia’s peacekeeping mission AMISOM, is twice the size of The Gambia’s airforce.
As the expression goes, it is not the size of the dog in the fight that matters, but the fight in the dog, so despite all the numeric disadvantages Jammeh might still be able to rally his troops.
However, armies like The Gambia’s are almost always corrupted by spending all their time beating down unarmed populations, and tend to flee when faced with determined professional adversaries.
In addition, while Jammeh might count on the loyalty of most of his small military, he wouldn’t enjoy similar civilian support, and would thus go into a war to defend his job with less than 250,000 adult Gambians on his side.
So Jammeh’s prayer come January 19 is that ECOWAS blinks first, stays with the diplomatic initiatives under way, and doesn’t carry out its threat to eject him forcefully from power.