The Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh has rejected the outcome of last week’s election, which he lost to opposition leader Adama Barrow, and called for a fresh vote.
The announcement made on state TV on Friday throws the future of the West African country into doubt after an unexpected election result that ended Jammeh’s 22-year rule and was widely seen as a moment of democratic hope.
“After a thorough investigation, I have decided to reject the outcome of the recent election. I lament serious and unacceptable abnormalities which have reportedly transpired during the electoral process,” Jammeh said.
“I recommend fresh and transparent elections which will be officiated by a god-fearing and independent electoral commission,” he said.
Human rights groups have accused Jammeh’s government of detaining, torturing and killing his opponents during his rule.
His defiant announcement came after the chair of the country’s new ruling coalition said Jammeh would be prosecuted for his crimes within a year of handing over the reins of government in January.
Soldiers were seen placing sandbags in strategic locations across the capital Banjul, a development that triggered widespread unease among the already-spooked population, who had been panic-buying food before the vote due to fear of unrest.
As the military deployed onto the streets of the tiny nation, the US embassy in Banjul urged the army to continue to show “respect for the rule of law and the outcome of the presidential election.”
“The Gambian people have made a clear choice for change and a new start,” the embassy added.
Opposition spokeswoman Isatou Touray criticised on social media a “violation of democracy” and called for people to “remain calm, lucid, vigilant and not retreat.”
Babatunde Olugboji, deputy programme director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, responded to Jammeh’s U-turn on Friday.
“We are deeply concerned by reports of belated objections to the Gambian election results raised by President Jammeh,” he said.
“The international community, notably Ecowas [the Economic Community of West African States] and the African Union, should loudly protest against any unlawful attempt to subvert the will of the Gambian people.”
He also reiterated analysis his group had issued immediately after the election defeat: “Given the Jammeh government’s past record of intimidating and targeting perceived opponents, the transition period also carries risks.
“It is essential that during the political transition Gambian security forces continue to show respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
Jammeh’s defeat sparked wild celebrations last week. But some people also said at the time that they doubted he would accept he had been beaten.
Official election results from the electoral commission gave Barrow, a property developer who once worked as a security guard at retailer Argos in London,45.5% of the vote against Jammeh’s 36.7%.
Barrow is set to take over in late January following a transition period, but Jammeh is likely to make strenuous efforts to ensure that does not happen.