The end of the 22-year reign of former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, ushered in by the December election of opposition candidate Adama Barrow, is widely seen as a win for democracy in Africa. More so than anything else, this is a win for the Economic Community of West African States (“ECOWAS”) and regional self-policing in Africa.
President Jammeh was well known for his harsh views on issues such as homosexuality and his eccentricity, such as his claimed ability to cure AIDs. He came to power in The Gambia in 1994 following a coup, and his rule in the West African country stood out in the region for its brutal treatment of opposition groups and its reliance on a powerful intelligence agency to root out dissent. There have been several attempted coups in The Gambia since Jammeh took the helm, but it was democracy and regional pressure that finally led to his demise, aided by a stagnant economy that fueled popular discontent. Corruption, protectionism, the lack of an independent judiciary, and a weak private sector all hindered The Gambia’s growth during Jammeh’s presidency, adding to the tension and dissatisfaction of the population.
While The Gambia has had several elections, these have been seen as one-sided and have even been criticized by ECOWAS for “an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.” The election on December 1, 2016 proved to be a turning point for the country, with a resounding victory for the opposition despite external monitors’ concerns over the transparency of the polls. An independent election commission helped to administer the historic vote. According to the electoral commission’s official election results, Barrow won 45.5 percent of the vote while Jammeh won 36.7 percent. President Jammeh quickly accepted this defeat, to the surprise of critics at home and abroad. However, the following week, on December 9, President Jammeh made a speech in which he announced his “total rejection of the election results,” a move which he claimed “annull[ed] the elections in its entirety.”
As President Jammeh indicated his unwillingness to leave the country, division and turmoil spread further and deeper, with the Presidency closing three radio stations, arresting opposition supporters, and even causing the head of the electoral commission to flee to Senegal. By January 18, combat troops from Senegal, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana and more countries had amassed at the Gambian border, prepared to intervene if the democratically-defeated leader did not step down. The Nigerian Air Force further indicated that it had already dispatched an aviation fleet to provide support to any military intervention in The Gambia. Military intervention ultimately was not necessary, as President Jammeh negotiated with the opposition and the government of Senegal, which led the ECOWAS effort, and ultimately accepted the results and left the country in mid-January.
It is unlikely that The Gambia’s experience will be the blueprint for democratic transition in all of Africa. West African political dynamics are vastly different from those of central and southern Africa, and the regional backchannelling, negotiations, and military pressure effectuated by ECOWAS are nearly impossible to reproduce right now in other areas of the continent. Yet this result is important for the confidence of investors and businesses operating or looking to operate in West Africa. Although there is significant uncertainty about the path that The Gambia will take under its new leadership, outsiders can have confidence that the regional political structure and external pressure from democratic neighbors will help maintain democratic norms in West Africa. Of course, The Gambia is much smaller than all of its West African neighbors; it is unclear if ECOWAS or other neighbors could exert the same level of regional pressure on a larger country in a similar situation. However, it is noteworthy that the larger surrounding countries prioritize democracy in the region highly enough to orchestrate a coordinated intervention in the first place.
Even more encouraging is that preliminary signs from The Gambia suggest, tentatively, that the new administration is following a more democratic path than its predecessor. President Barrow, who returned to The Gambia last week, has indicated that he is that “President of all Gambians,” and has made a point to be diplomatic in his dealings with Jammeh and his loyalists. Though there is evidence that Jammeh may have taken state money prior to his departure, Barrow is attempting to build confidence in the judicial processes of the country by relying on an independent investigation into the matter. This is a departure from the tendency of new African regimes to assume the role of policing the opposition.
It will be difficult to replicate the ultimately peaceful—if initially tenuous—transition of power that took place in The Gambia over the last few weeks. However, the transition marks a win for emerging democracies in Africa and all other actors interested in the peace and stability of West Africa.