The army has backed Yahya Jammeh, but now they must support a democratic transition.Gambia’s political crisis has entered a dangerous phase. After publicly conceding defeat in the December 1 presidential election, incumbent President Yahya Jammeh reversed his position on December 9 and rejected the election results. The longer he refuses to agree to step down, the greater the risk of human rights violations.

A high-powered team of West African presidents, led by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current chair of regional body Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), failed to persuade Jammeh to transfer power during a December 13 visit to Banjul, the capital, and the Gambian president appears to be digging his heels in. His party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, filed a Supreme Court challenge to the election results on the evening of December 13, making the court deadline by less than an hour.In his attempt to stay in power, Jammeh, and the security forces he controls, could resort to the arbitrary arrests, torture and forced disappearances against political opponents and activists that have marked his 22 years in office. Security forces in April and May arbitrarily arrested and beat more than 90 peaceful opposition protesters; two of whom later died in custody, one allegedly as a result of torture at the National Intelligence Agency.

The risk of rights violations underscores the responsibilities of Gambia’s security forces during the transition and the potential consequences if they fail to fulfill their international legal obligations. They should ensure that Gambians are secure, no matter their political persuasion, and that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful protest are respected. The army and police leadership should ignore any order that contravenes these obligations and instruct their subordinates to do the same.

Jammeh is believed to retain the support of key members of the security forces. Army chief Ousmane Badjie on December 13 arrived for the ECOWAS talks wearing a badge on his uniform featuring Jammeh’s face and declared his support for the “commander in chief, President Yahya Jammeh.”

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President-elect Adama Barrow, who has no army or police security detail, said on December 11 that he feared for his safety. Two days later, Gambian security forces evicted the courageous chairman of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), Alieu Momar Njai, and his staff from their offices. “Other than Barrow, I am perhaps the individual most at risk,” Njai told me afterwards. More…