On Dec. 2, Yahya Jammeh, the dictator of the small West African country Gambia, did something remarkably undictatorial: He agreed to step down after losing an election. But a week later, he reverted to type, appearing live on state television to reject the results.
Mr. Jammeh has been in power for 22 years, a ruthless autocrat throughout. He ran a paramilitary hit squad that, according to human rights groups and one former member I interviewed, assassinated political opponents and dumped their bodies in an abandoned well; he threw lesser enemies in Mile 2, a mosquito-infested prison. In Banjul, the country’s dusty capital, military checkpoints maintained a lifeless calm that dissipated only during official celebrations of Mr. Jammeh’s rule.
But in presidential elections held on Dec. 1, a political newcomer named Adama Barrow managed to get more votes. Mr. Barrow worked as a security guard in London before returning home to Gambia a decade ago and becoming a property developer.
He served as treasurer for the United Democratic Party, Gambia’s long-suffering opposition, and was nominated its standard-bearer in September, after Ousainou Darboe, the party’s founder and perennial candidate, was jailed. Mr. Barrow campaigned on a single issue: “to once and for all take this soulless dictator out.”
When Mr. Jammeh conceded defeat, flag-waving Gambians took to the streets, scaling ladders to shred Mr. Jammeh’s posters. Now the military has increased its presence in Banjul, and Mr. Barrow has said he fears for his safety. One member of the opposition has called Mr. Jammeh’s U-turn “a coup d’état.”
It would not be his first. Mr. Jammeh took power in a coup, as a 29-year-old lieutenant in 1994, before bowing to international pressure and holding elections two years later. Beneath the democratic veneer, Gambia was a police state subject to the whims of its erratic leader, a man who fired ministers without warning, developed an herbal paste he claimed could cure AIDS, and threatened to behead gays.
Activists in the diaspora maintained a list of hundreds of Gambians they said had been detained, tortured, disappeared or murdered by the government. Perhaps the most brazen crime was the assassination of Deyda Hydara, a journalist and prominent critic of Mr. Jammeh who was shot dead on his way home from work in 2004.
Few Gambia watchers expected Mr. Jammeh to lose the elections. Gambians often refrained from discussing politics even with their own families. A series of courageous demonstrations in the spring and summer shattered the norm of Gambian quiescence. Solo Sandeng, a secretary in the United Democratic Party, who was arrested for leading a small protest on April 14, died in custody. After Mr. Sandeng’s death, the protests grew, as did criticism from the United States government and the European Union.
Gambia has no natural resources to speak of, and around half its population is living in poverty. But in recent years, in part because the nearby Ebola epidemic scared away tourists, the economy started deteriorating further, propelling record numbers of Gambians to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of finding work in Europe. In the run-up to the December elections, as their grievances boiled over, Gambians crossed the once-unthinkable red lines of publicly opposing the regime, and the opposition at last united around a single presidential candidate, instead of being splintered as usual.
In many autocracies, the regime would have rigged the vote, preventing the growing dissent from metastasizing into a public defeat for the incumbent. Mr. Jammeh, however, did not rig elections, but he locked up rivals, shut down critical newspapers, and paid off supporters. The strategy shielded him from some international criticism — observers could declare an election “free and fair” — but his opponents had grown too confident for it to work this year.
Living in his bubble, Mr. Jammeh was probably surprised by the results on election night. Mr. Barrow’s surge had come late, and no public polls tracked the race. According to The New York Times, “As returns coming in from major regions clearly indicated that he was going to lose, Mr. Jammeh asked his key advisers to annul the votes.” But his security officials pointed out that refusing to accept the results would unleash enormous protests and perhaps violence. He made a concession call to Mr. Barrow.
Perhaps spooked by calls to prosecute him, Mr. Jammeh evidently changed his mind. The United Nations Security Council, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union, the United States government — all have condemned Mr. Jammeh’s rejection of the results. Gambian voters managed to get the international community to tell Mr. Jammeh something it never had before: leave.
If Mr. Jammeh stays in power, he will have to disfigure or remove the democratic window dressing that betrayed him. So even if the opposition does not manage to usher in a new democratic era and get Mr. Jammeh to step down, perhaps through a deal offering him immunity, it will have fully stripped him of legitimacy.
Last summer, I visited Mr. Darboe, the founder of the United Democratic Party, at his shabby office. Mr. Darboe, a soft-spoken lawyer, contested and lost presidential elections in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011. “I want to at least give Gambians a chance to express dissent through the ballot box,” he explained. Mr. Darboe had kept the flame of freedom burning, no matter how dim. Now it will either be fully extinguished or finally catch fire.
Stuart A. Reid is an editor at Foreign Affairs.