DAKAR, Senegal — Ebrima Sall hopes Thursday will be a proud day for Gambia, when President-elect Adama Barrow is slated to be inaugurated as the first new leader of the tiny West African country in 22 years.
But Sall, like most Gambians, is waiting to see whether President Yahya Jammeh, 51, will actually step down, because he refuses to accept the election results. In fact, Jammeh declared a a 90-day state of emergency Tuesday in his latest effort to stay in office.
The state of emergency, announced on state television, bans all residents and citizens from “any acts of disobedience” or violence and urges security forces to maintain order.
Supporters of Barrow, the president-elect, are gearing up for a fight with Jammeh, an authoritarian who seized power in a 1994 bloodless coup.
“I am not sure Jammeh is ready to hand over” power, said Sall, 34, an auto mechanic. “He is still suppressing people, and the army is firmly in support of him. The coming days in Gambia are days when anything can happen.”
Neighboring countries like Senegal are pressuring Jammeh to leave and are preparing military forces to prevent violence and instability in case he doesn’t, triggering a possible civil war. Nigeria has offered him asylum if he steps down.
The African Union warned last week of “serious consequences” if Jammeh remains in office and his actions lead to the loss of lives.
The uncertainty has caused prices to soar for rice and vegetables and led businesses to put off making decisions because no one can plan for the future, Sall said.
“As Gambians, we know this is the price we have to pay to get our freedom, which we have lost for the past 22 years,” he said.
After the Dec. 1 election and surprise resounding victory by Barrow, 51, Jammeh initially conceded defeat. Voters danced and sang in the streets. Gambians in exile in Senegal and elsewhere began packing their bags to go home.
Just over a week later, Jammeh backtracked, vowing to challenge the results in the country’s constitutional court and refusing to step down until the judges rule.
That presented a problem: Gambia’s top court doesn’t have enough judges to hear the case after Jammeh sacked most of them last year. The country now must import more judges because they don’t have enough qualified lawyers left. The chief justice of the constitutional court, Nigerian-born Emmanuel Fagbenle, said last week that judges from Sierra Leone and elsewhere couldn’t come until May.
Meanwhile, Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, or APRC, filed an injunction to stop the inauguration.
But a court injunction can’t stop the inauguration, said Halifa Sallah, spokesman for the coalition of opposition parties that support Barrow.
“The only person who can occupy the seat of presidency is the person who is declared winner of the elections. After Jan. 19, if Jammeh continues to resist, he will be considered a rebel,” Sallah said.
Gambian legal experts agreed the top court does not have the power to stop the inauguration. “The Supreme Court injunction cannot extend the term of a president,” said Aziz Bensouda, the secretary-general of the Gambia Bar Association.
He said the courts can consider Jammeh’s petition after a new president has been sworn in. At the same time, if Barrow does not take the oath of office, there will be no official president.
Jammeh has ruled Gambia with an iron fist for decades. Since the election — when the government temporarily blocked access to the Internet — officials have shut down four radio stations and arrested journalists. Some opposition politicians have fled the country or gone into hiding in Senegal and elsewhere.
Some members of Jammeh’s inner circle have deserted him. Gambia’s Information Minister Sheriff Bojang recently resigned and fled to Dakar.
“The people have spoken and I now give my support to President-elect Adama Barrow,” Bojang said in a statement. “I want to call on President Jammeh and the ruling APRC Party to do the right thing to avoid any suffering for ordinary Gambians.”
Supporters of the new president say they are resolute that Jammeh must go.
“We voted for a new president, and there is nothing that can reverse that,” said Fatima Sandeng, the daughter of the opposition leader Solo Sandeng, who died in police detention last year after a political protest in Banjul. “We have come a long way. … I know the inauguration will go ahead because the rest of the world is with us Gambians.”
Sainey M.K. Marena, 31, a journalist who fled four years ago to Senegal, said Africa must learn from Gambia.
“Freedom has been restored back to the country after 22 years of a dictatorial regime. It’s the first time in history where a dictator has been voted out in Africa without mass street protests of violence,” Marena said. “Other African countries must learn from Gambians and learn to use their ballots to eject dictators.”