The Fall of a Tyrant and What it Means for Western Africa

2016 was a mixed year for democracy in Western Africa. Even with the international community’s help in organizing and overseeing the landmark democratic elections in the Central African Republic, we also saw de-facto dictators in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi defy their countries’ constitutional term limits and run for re-election. So when Yahya Jammeh, the eccentric and brutal longtime ruler of the Gambia reneged on his promise to step down peacefully after his surprise defeat to Adama Barrow in the 2016 election, it was a welcome revelation that the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), independent of the international community, were able to ensure the peaceful transition of power and force President Jammeh–who had been in power since 1996–into exile.

The successful intervention by ECOWAS in the Gambia is critical because it is one of the first examples of the AU and ECOWAS successfully facilitating a regime change without direct military support from the UN or a Western power (as France did in Côte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic). It also showed that the AU learned from its mistakes in its dealing with President Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, where it repeatedly threatened to remove Nkurunziza by force only to eventually back down. It was a disaster that destroyed the credibility of the AU and gave Nkurunziza confidence that there would be no direct consequences to his crackdown on political opposition.

Image courtesy of Stuart Price, © 2012.

Furthermore, in the electoral crisis in the Gambia, ECOWAS was provided with a couple of beneficial factors that it did not have in Burundi. Firstly, President Jammeh clearly lost the presidential election whereas in Burundi, President Nkurunziza used violence and intimidation tactics to win the election. Secondly, President Jammeh’s increasingly erratic behavior, which includes his announcement that he had found a cure for HIV/AIDS and his government-sponsored witch-hunting campaigns, had embarrassed many African leaders who felt that he was propagating negative stereotypes of African politicians. Thirdly, as the Gambia is the smallest country in Africa, many of its neighbors felt comfortable publicly interfering in its affairs without repercussions.

One of the biggest problems that democracy has faced in Western Africa is that there has not been an African group or power that has been willing and able to fight for it. Until ECOWAS’s intervention in the Gambia, Western powers, namely France, were the only groups that intervened militarily in electoral crises, such as when French UN troops toppled Côte d’Ivoire’s President Laurent Gbagbo in 2011 after he attempted to remain in power after Alassane Ouattara defeated him in the presidential election.

There are serious problems with this strategy of relying on outside powers as electoral referees. Countries like France will only intervene in countries where they maintain an active economic interest. Furthermore, Western actors’ actions are viewed with deep suspicion, and as the backlash against the International Criminal Court (ICC) shows, African countries are growing increasingly weary of Western powers interfering in their affairs.

With France and the United States under the Trump administration increasingly shifting their efforts in West Africa from promoting democracy to counter-terrorism operations, it is very heartening to see that ECOWAS is picking up their mantle and supporting fairly elected leaders in the region.

If ECOWAS can emerge as a regional force that helps oversee elections and potentially intervene in electoral crises, this will go a long way towards insuring the stability of the region. Yahya Jammeh’s fall demonstrates that when the AU and ECOWAS act together as a bloc they have the ability to police internal political crises and promote democratic governance. The impressive united front presented by ECOWAS and the decisive military action led by the Senegalese army and Nigerian navy ended a budding political crisis that could potentially degenerated into a civil war.

However, there is reason to doubt that this sort of muscular intervention will be a lasting policy. The electoral crisis in the Gambia was a near perfect scenario for ECOWAS members to intervene. President Jammeh had few allies and his country’s weak military was no match for any of its neighbors. The big question heading forward is how ECOWAS will react in situations where there is disagreement among members on the course of action.

We will soon have an answer to this question as the rapidly deteriorating political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo will present a stern test to the newly empowered bloc. The stakes will be far higher than they were in the Gambia: previous crises in the country have drawn in its neighbors and devolved into regional proxy wars. ECOWAS has the potential to play an important role in convincing President Kabila to abide by his country’s term limits and must be willing to take the decisive and aggressive steps that it did against President Jammeh. Until it does so, the intervention in the Gambia will very much remain the exception of the rule.

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