Jammeh has ruled Gambia with an iron grip for the past 22 years and ran for his fifth term in office, but suffered a shock election defeat. More than a week later, Jammeh refuses to accept the results.
“I announce to you, Gambians, my total rejection of the election results and thereby annulling the elections in its entirety,” he said in a televised speech Friday.
“We will go back to the polls because I want to make sure that every Gambian has voted under an independent electoral commission that is independent, neutral and free from foreign influence.”
Jammeh seized power in a 1994 military coup and has been in power ever since. Human rights groups have described his regime as abusive, with hundreds of political prisoners languishing in jail. Jammeh also attracted heavy criticism for claiming that he created an herbal remedy for AIDS, and he once threatened to behead gay people.
He had been expected to concede power to his opponent Adama Barrow, with the country’s electoral commission announcing last week that the president would do so.
Instead, Jammeh called for fresh elections — a move that was immediately criticized by the US government.
“This action is a reprehensible and unacceptable breach of faith with the people of the Gambia and an egregious attempt to undermine a credible election process and remain in power illegitimately,” the US State Department said in a statement.
“We call upon President Jammeh, who accepted the election results on December 2, to carry out an orderly transition of power to President-elect Barrow in accordance with the Gambian constitution.”
Barrow, a property developer, won more than 45% of the vote with 263,515 ballots cast for him. Barrow previously worked as a security guard at an Argos retail store in London where he once tackled a shoplifter, according to reports in UK newspapers.
On the eve and on the day of the elections, websites and phone lines were blocked. Heavy paramilitary presence was reported at poll stations as Gambians cast their votes using the country’s unique marbles and drums system.
Human rights in the country have long been a topic of concern among international NGOs. In April, the national organizing secretary of the UDP, the country’s largest opposition party, was beaten to death while in the custody of security services, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Political dissidents have been jailed and abused, according to the media monitoring organization Article 19.
The small West African nation is the fourth-largest source of migrants arriving in Italy, despite having a population of fewer than two million people.