Jammeh had initially accepted the result, ceding power after 22 years, to a coalition led by the opposition leader, Adama Barrow. But few observers expected Jammeh to give up control of the small west African country.
The election result – and Jammeh’s acceptance of defeat – was widely seen as a moment of democratic hope on the continent and prompted widespread celebration in Gambia and elsewhere.
But in an announcement on state TV on Friday, Jammeh said he had changed his mind and wanted “fresh and transparent elections which will be officiated by a god-fearing and independent electoral commission”.
“After a thorough investigation, I have decided to reject the outcome of the recent election. I lament serious and unacceptable abnormalities which have reportedly transpired during the electoral process,” Jammeh said.There was immediate speculation that the autocratic leader’s defiant announcement had been prompted by the prospect of prosecution under the new government.
Human rights groups have accused Jammeh’s government of detaining, torturing and killing his opponents during his rule. Dozens of pro-democracy activists were arrested earlier this year and one well-known leader killed.
Last week the chair of the country’s new ruling coalition said Jammeh would be prosecuted for his crimes within a year of handing over the reins of government in January.
Jammeh’s earlier decision to resign was reportedly due to a lack of support from senior security officials. However, the prospect of being held to to account for previous human rights abuses may have rallied the military and police behind the president. It is also possible Jammeh hopes to secure immunity from prosecution in return for withdrawing his rejection of the poll results.
Soldiers were seen placing sandbags in strategic locations across the capital, Banjul, a development that triggered widespread unease among the already spooked population, who had been panic-buying food before the vote due to fear of unrest.