Gambia election

Will Gambia lead Africa back to the ICC?

02 December 2016 by Janet H. Anderson

There’s wild jubilation in Banjul the Gambia’s capital, after a tense 36 hours of vote-counting combined with a complete internet and messaging black-out for “security reasons”, with the news that the head of the country’s independent election commission Momor Njie has declared the 22-year rule of president Yahya Jammeh over.

Jammeh was attempting to head for a fifth term in power, and had been reported as saying he was “proud to be a dictator” and that Allah would keep him in power for a billion years.

It’s estimated that some two thirds of all highly educated Gambians had already fled his autocratic rule. Thousands of young people had risked the dangers of a trek across the Sahara to try to enter Europe each year. According to the International Organisation for Migration, Gambians represent the fourth-largest group of arrivals to Italy in recent months, despite being one of Africa’s smallest states with a population under 2 million.

It was in October, in the wake of Burundi and South Africa’s declaration that they’d be leaving The Hague-based International Criminal Court, that Jammeh said the ICC was biased against African countries. And tacked his country onto the withdrawal movement. It seemed to confirm the Africa departure narrative – two countries are a trickle but three equals a flood.

Still, most commentators weren’t very surprised by the Gambian decision. Jammeh had been steadily moving the country in a non-internationalist direction: he’d left the Commonwealth in 2013 and changed the title of the country to The Islamic Republic

But now, it’s already reported via Reuters West and Central Africa bureau chief Tim Cocks on Twitter that the new administration under former security guard turned politician Adama Barrow will decide to rescind the decision and tear up the withdrawal.

In fact, there’s no provision in the governing Rome Statute of the ICC for a state to do so. When questioned last week by a group of journalists – including two from Gambia – ICC spokesperson Fadi al Abdallah stated that there would be no need for a ‘withdraw the withdrawal’ clause. Just a state decision or message to the Secretary General of the United Nations – where the official withdrawal was lodged on November 10 this year, and the 12 month waiting period for the withdrawal to come into effect would be wiped out.

Sainey SK Marenah, an investigative journalist who’d been forced to relocate to neighbouring Dakar in 2014 after being accused of publishing ‘false news’, has high expectations of the new president-elect: “Gambia will soon be back at ICC” because it’s a “high priority for the new government to bring back Gambia to all the international organisations,” he says.

Sanna Camara, also an exiled journalist recently in The Hague, says it was a key part of the new president’s campaign and that the rejoining – or not withdrawing – is part of the promise to “respect rule of law and human rights”.

But while in The Hague attending the Assembly of States Parties meeting in November, both Marenah and Camara dogged the footsteps of fellow Gambian Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor, to try to challenge her on why she had not launched an investigations into human rights abuses in her home state. Now Camara says “although there were talks about Jammeh to be referred to the ICC, as unlikely as that might be, the country still is an important member of the Rome Statute.”

Important enough to start a new ball rolling of pro-ICC attitudes among African heads of states? Somehow, even though Gambia is very much the focus of international attention for the extraordinary spectacle of the democratic defeat of an autocrat, it seems unlikely that this small state will punch so far above its weight.

For now though, the atmosphere is of celebration and hope. As Marenah says “The Gambia will be great again after 22 years of international isolation”.