BANJUL, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The top judge in Gambia’s Supreme Court declined on Monday to rule on President Yahya Jammeh’s petition to overturn his election defeat, as many Gambians wait nervously to see how the veteran leader will react to his rival’s planned inauguration this week.
Jammeh initially conceded defeat to opposition leader Adama Barrow following the Dec. 1 poll but later changed his mind, drawing widespread condemnation and the threat of a military intervention by regional neighbours.
Whether Gambia succeeds in swearing in Barrow is viewed as a test for democracy in West Africa, a region which is seeking to draw a line under a history of coups and autocratic rule.
The Supreme Court has not sat for over a year and all the judge’s seats bar that of the chief justice are unoccupied. Jammeh has hired judges from Nigeria and Sierra Leone to hear the petitions, but they have failed to arrive in Gambia.
“It is crystal clear that the justices from Nigeria and Serra Leone are not coming,” the court’s Nigerian Chief Justice Emmanuel Fagbenle said.
The chief justice said the court would be adjourned until the next regular session in either May or November, but added that the petitions could be heard if the judges arrived sooner.
The court’s inability to convene only deepens the political crisis in Gambia. Allies of Jammeh said there could be no inauguration with petitions still pending before the court.
“In the interest of justice, the petition must be heard and determined before the inauguration can take place,” said Edward Gomez, a lawyer for Jammeh’s APRC political party, reacting to the adjournment.
Tensions are rising in the capital Banjul as Barrow’s Jan. 19 inauguration approaches. Heavily armed security forces man checkpoints throughout the city.
Barrow, who is visiting neighbouring Senegal, insists the swearing in ceremony will go ahead.
Leaders of regional bloc ECOWAS have tried to convince Jammeh to step aside, rather than risk dragging the country into crisis or civil war. But the bloc has also indicated that military force could be used to install Barrow.
Jammeh has called ECOWAS’s placing of troops on alert “a declaration of war” and Gambia’s army chief has publicly declared his loyalty to the 51-year-old leader who seized power in a 1994 coup.
Jammeh is looking increasingly isolated on the African continent. The African Union said last week it would not recognise Jammeh as Gambia’s president after Jan. 19.
In a statement, Jammeh’s office described the AU’s stance as “irresponsible and malicious and only meant to annoy and aggravate the political situation in The Gambia.”
The most recent mediation mission on Friday failed.
“As far are we are concerned all the options are on the table,” an advisor to Senegal’s President Macky Sall told Reuters. “And from January 19th he will no longer be president ... and all the countries will recognise Barrow.”
Writing by Joe Bavier; editing by Richard Lough