The Gambia’s army chief has reaffirmed his loyalty to President Yahya Jammeh, who has spent more than two decades in power and refuses to step down.
Jammeh lost a December 1 election to Adama Barrow, a former estate agent.
Lieutenant-General Ousman Badjie used a new year message published in the pro-government Daily Observer newspaper on Wednesday to “renew to Your Excellency [Jammeh] the assurance of the unflinching loyalty and support of The Gambia Armed Forces”.
But Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, a campaign group advising pro-reform African leaders, told Al Jazeera that Badjie’s declaration should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“First of all, the only outlet really reporting this right now has been the state-run Observer newspaper which is essentially a propaganda mouthpiece for the Jammeh regime,” Smith said.
“Secondly, I was talking to a former Gambian minister earlier today and he told me that the letter that was published in the Gambian newspaper is actually a recycled letter. In fact, it is an annual letter that is sent to the president from the army, so in that sense it is not really entirely unique news.”
Smith added that by declaring his support for Jammeh, the army chief may simply be “trying to save his life”.
“The two most dangerous professions in The Gambia are being a journalist and being in the army, given the widespread disappearances, killings and torture that has occurred for members in both sectors,” he said.
Jammeh, who has been in power for 22 years, stunned observers by initially accepting his defeat, but then made a U-turn a week later, rejecting the results and then filing a court challenge against the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
Diplomats in the region have voiced private concern that Barrow’s safety is not being guaranteed by the state, as he relies on unarmed volunteers to act as bodyguards.
Barrow initially claimed the army chief had personally assured him of his support, but Badjie subsequently appeared at high-level mediation talks in Banjul in mid-December saying the incumbent was still his boss.
A crackdown in recent days by security agents has also shut two radio stations, while a group of traders selling T-shirts featuring Barrow’s image were briefly detained.
On Tuesday evening Jammeh and his party filed two more legal complaints with the Supreme Court, claiming two IEC officials had meddled in the voting process, affecting at least 25,000 votes, and alleging that Jammeh was denied a “well-earned victory”.
“If the result was properly collated, the outcome would have shown that the petitioner [Jammeh] won the election,” said a court filing lodged by Jammeh himself.
Electoral commission chief flees
The head of The Gambia’s electoral commission has fled to neighbouring Senegal fearing for his safety, meaning he is unlikely to appear in any of the three court cases now lodged against him.
Alieu Momar Njie suspected a plot against him after his commission’s headquarters were locked by the security forces for several days while Jammeh challenged the election result in the Supreme Court.
The election was hailed internationally as free and fair, but Jammeh has cited a recount issued in the days after the election as evidence of manipulation by the IEC.