What Lessons Should We Take Away From The Gambia?By Steve McDonald // Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Africa and the international community heaved a sigh of relief as Yahya Jammeh, the former President of the Gambia, finally agreed to step down on January 20, 2017. This decision came after months of denying the results of the December 1, 2016 elections in which the coalition opposition candidate, Adama Barrow, a successful property developer, football enthusiast, and longtime resident in the UK, won a plurality of the vote. Jammeh, who had come to power in a military coup and ruled the Gambia with an iron hand for 22 years, brooking no opposition or challenge, had once declared he would be president for “a billion years.” His refusal to accept the election results had been challenged across the board by the newly elected Gambian president, the regional grouping of states called the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU), the United Nations (UN), and key international powers like the United States. His decision to step down brings the immediate crisis to an end, but the Gambia still faces significant challenges in establishing public trust in government and moving forward with development. The success of ECOWAS in forcing Jammeh to step down stands as an example of how Africa can independently handle its security challenges.
The Aftermath of the Crisis
Still, for almost two months, even with the threat of military intervention by the hastily formed ECOWAS Military Intervention In Gambia (ECOMIG) force, made up of Nigerian, Senegalese, Togolese, Malian, and Ghanaian forces, Jammeh had resolutely held his ground, calling for a Gambian Supreme Court ruling. All the while, his ministers of government slowly deserted him, including his long-serving Vice President, and finally, the Chief of Staff of the Gambian army stated the army would not defend Jammeh. As this scenario played out, tens of thousands of Gambians fled across the porous borders to Senegal. Meanwhile, Adama Barrow had been sworn in as president in Dakar, Senegal, and was poised to return to Banjul to assume his position.
The Gambia appeared on the verge of collapse and unrest when Jammeh capitulated and flew into exile in Equatorial Guinea. A crisis had been averted and pundits around the world began to declare this “a victory for democracy in Africa.” Africa, of course, has seen its share of aborted and manipulated elections over the past three decades as presidents have ensured their longevity by any means necessary. Though representative democracy has made significant inroads in recent years, with Freedom House’s 2016 index listing 8 “free” counties and more making strong progress, there are still a number of holdouts where presidents are entrenched.
No doubt the outcome in the Gambia has strengthened democracy’s hand on the continent, although this drama may have a ways to go before it concludes. As the country prepared for President Barrow’s return and ECOMIG troops rolled into Banjul to cheering throngs of people, Barrow’s special adviser, Mai Ahmad Fatty, told journalists that Jammeh took with him more than $11.4 million looted from the treasury and government property during the two-week period before his departure. “The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.” At the same time, Marcel Alain de Souza, the President of the ECOWAS Commission, while congratulating ECOMIG forces for their intervention, stated that “We are certain that there are secret weapons depots and we have consequently included the search of such weapons to ECOMIG mission. That’s why ECOWAS forces will secure the Gambian capital and the Gambian territory for a given necessary time. We will look for hidden weapons and mercenaries will be whisked away to create a true situation of tranquility, to secure the return of populations who fear reprisals and to ensure that the country regain its national unity.”
Another wrinkle in the seemingly successful outcome was a statement released jointly on January 21, by ECOWAS, the AU, and the UN which “commend[ed] the goodwill and statesmanship of His Excellency former President Jammeh, who with the greater interest of the Gambian people in mind, and in order to preserve the peace, stability and security of the Gambia and maintain its sovereignty, territorial integrity and the dignity of the Gambian people, has decided to facilitate an immediate peaceful and orderly transition process and transfer of power.” The statement, which has angered Barrow and his supporters, went on to state that it is committed to ensure “the dignity, respect, security and rights of HE former President Jammeh, as a citizen, a party leader and a former Head of State as provided for and guaranteed by the 1997 Gambian Constitution and other Laws of The Gambia” and ask the new government for guarantees for “the dignity, security, safety and rights of former President Jammeh’s immediate family, cabinet members, government officials, Security Officials and party supporters and loyalists.” It further asked that no “legislative measures” be taken to counter these measures and that there be no intimidation or harassment of former regime members and supporters. Finally, the statement commits “to work with the Government of The Gambia to prevent the seizure of assets and properties lawfully belonging to former President Jammeh or his family and those of his Cabinet members, government officials and Party supporters” and states that “former President Jammeh is at liberty to return to The Gambia at any time of his choosing.”
These stipulations, which are not binding on the new government of the Gambia, are bizarre, given Jammeh’s record of human rights abuses and Barrow’s call for a truth and reconciliation process and to possibly charge Jammeh with “crimes against humanity.” The fact that Jammeh has chosen Equatorial Guinea as his first exile is instructive, given it is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court and would not, therefore, allow him to be deported to face prosecution for past crimes. Whereas democratically elected presidents from ECOWAS like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, and Macky Sall of Senegal had been key in the negotiations with Jammeh, the two presidents who finally convinced him to leave were Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and Alpha Conde of the Republic of Guinea Conakry, both decidedly undemocratic and dictatorial rulers. As Jammeh’s wife is Mauritanian, many speculate that might be his final place of asylum. Mauritania is not a member of the International Criminal Court, and he would be beyond its reach there.
The Role of ECOWAS, and its Implications
So, if the situation is still fluid, although definitely headed in the right direction for democracy advocates, and the international community seems amenable to immunity for another brutal dictator, what lesson emerges from this dramatic cliffhanger?
In my opinion, ECOWAS has shown once again the way in which Africa can address its security challenges independently. Beyond ECOWAS, the continent’s six other Regional Economic Communities (RECS)—Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)—have focused mostly on economic integration and development and been ineffective in addressing security challenges.
In contrast, ECOWAS has been involved over and over again over the last 36 years, not always successfully, in taking responsibility for regional unrest and disruption within its member countries. As early as 1981, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the AU, created the Pan-African Peacekeeping Force in Chad as a response to the civil war in that country using primarily Nigerian forces. The OAU force never deployed, but in August 1990, ECOWAS’ Standing Mediation Committee established a Military Observer Group (ECOMOG), which was also poised to intervene militarily to help resolve the Liberian civil war, though it did not deploy. In 1997, ECOWAS actually deployed in Sierra Leone to stop the RUF rebellion that threatened the election outcome there. In 1999, ECOMOG intervened in Guinea-Bissau to help end the civil war there. In Liberia, ECOWAS made two further separate interventions. In 2001, it planned to station 1,700 men along the Guinea–Liberia border to stop guerrilla infiltration by fighters, but internal fighting in Liberia prevented that. However, in 2003 during the second Liberian Civil War, ECOWAS launched a similar mission named ECOMIL to halt the occupation of Monrovia by rebel forces as peace efforts were ongoing. In the majority of these instances of military intervention, Nigerian forces provided both the leadership and troop strength.
The African Union, which replaced the OAU in 2002, was at least in part conceived by then-presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to enable interventions in situations of severe human rights violations, following African inaction during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and 1991 Somalian civil war. This heralded a dramatic change from the OAU charter, which did not allow for outside interventions in any circumstance. There is a clear trend for Africa to take on peacekeeping and monitoring roles directly. The Peace and Security Council, was formed to be the centerpiece of the AU’s new “security architecture,” which includes the Peer Review Mechanism which rates democracy progress, early warning systems in the RECs and efforts to recruit and train an African Standby Force, with considerable assistance from the United States. However, only ECOWAS has actually taken the responsibility and led on the ground, albeit with AU and international community blessings and often support, as in Liberia in 2003 when it worked closely with the United States military. IGAD has, since 2013, taken responsibility to resolve the South Sudan situation, which is spiraling out of control. It has, however, been ineffective to date and has not chosen to deploy forces. In the Democratic of the Congo, Tanzanian, South African and Senegalese troops were used by the United Nations in an “Intervention Brigade” to defeat the marauding militia, the M-23. Although the situation in the Gambia was an easy target for ECOWAS, as the intervention was small in scope against a president who was very unpopular both domestically and regionally, and which faced no other vested interests, ECOWAS is the only African force that has been meeting African security challenges. Its actions set an example that hopefully will be emulated by the AU and the other RECs.
I believe that the reason for ECOWAS’ effectiveness may simply be a reflection of the fact that West Africa, as a region, has over the last couple decades had more enlightened and democratic leadership than other parts of Africa. Ghana, Senegal, and Liberia have been prime motivators for peace processes in the region. Benin, Sierra Leone, and now Côte d’Ivoire are emerging as democratic leaders as well and, as a region, ECOWAS is showing the rest of the continent and world what responsibility should look like.
Steve McDonald is a Global Fellow and the former Director of the Wilson Center Africa Program.
What We’re Tweeting
- The Media and Election-Related Violence in Africa: Lessons from Kenya March 27, 2017
- CANCELED: A Conversation with the Foreign Minister of Nigeria, H.E. Geoffrey Onyeama March 15, 2017
- Sudans Working Group: A Private Discussion with His Excellency Professor Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, Speaker of Parliament of the Republic of the Sudan March 1, 2017