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Gambia's top court adjourns Jammeh's poll challenge

BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambia's Supreme Court was unable to hear President Yahya Jammeh's legal challenge to his election defeat on Tuesday after judges from Nigeria and Sierra Leone failed to show up.

Chief Justice Emmanuel Fagbenle adjourned the hearing until Jan. 16, meaning the court will hear the challenge filed by Jammeh's ruling APRC party two days before his mandate ends.

Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup, lost the Dec. 1 election to businessman Adama Barrow, but the authoritarian leader has contested the result in a move condemned at home and abroad.

The question of whether Gambia can overcome its political impasse and install Barrow as president next week is seen as a test case for African democracy in a region used to coups and autocratic rule.

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The challenge has shone a rare light on Gambia's legal system, which opponents say has long been manipulated by Jammeh.

The Supreme Court has not sat in over a year. Two chief justices have been dismissed since 2013, and one of them jailed.

The court hired four foreign judges from Nigeria and Sierra Leone to hear the appeal. Legal sources said on Tuesday the judges had not yet arrived in Gambia.

A document seen by Reuters and signed by Nigeria's acting chief justice said the timing of the extraordinary January session was "unfavorable". Gambia's Supreme Court normally sits in May and November.

Fagbenle confirmed the document and said he had received a similar one from the chief justice in Sierra Leone.

Outside the courtroom, thousands of people wearing green for the APRC put on a show of support not seen since the election, when Jammeh initially accepted his defeat but later questioned its validity.

"No to cheating," the crowd chanted, echoing Jammeh's speech rejecting the poll outcome.

Tuesday's delay was the latest twist in the post-election crisis. Regional bloc ECOWAS has sent a mediation mission of regional presidents to negotiate Jammeh's peaceful departure. A second mission scheduled for Wednesday was delayed until Friday, ECOWAS said.

(Reporting by Lamin Jahateh; Writing by Emma Farge and Edward McAllister; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

 
 
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