Last week the Gambian people saw their first democratic transfer of power. However, neighbouring states had to threaten force to secure it. Virginia Comolli makes sense of what went wrong for former president Yahya Jammeh.

Photo by US Air Force

By Virginia Comolli, Senior Fellow for Security and Development

The United States was not the only country inaugurating a new president last week, and Donald Trump was not the only new head of state taking office amidst unprecedented drama. The Gambia also had an eventful week.

One difference was that while on 20 January Trump stood in the US capital surrounded by thousands of people, the day before new Gambian President Adama Barrow had to settle for a small meeting room in the Gambian embassy in neighbouring Senegal for his historic inauguration. This was the first democratic transfer of power since the country gained independence in 1965.

Constitutional crisis

Events unfolded rapidly following the presidential elections in December. Yahya Jammeh had been ruling The Gambia since his election in 1996, which followed a military coup he had orchestrated two years earlier. He then went on to secure re-election in 2001, 2006 and 2011, but reports about voters intimidation – as well as Jammeh's propensity for restricting press freedom, making journalists 'disappear' and torturing opponents – raised questions over the fairness of those elections. In light of this background and his stated desire to 'rule for a billion years', the Gambian people could not believe their ears when Jammeh conceded defeat on 2 December. It had taken a new and somewhat unlikely coalition of seven opposition parties, but it appeared that the time for a 'new Gambia', as Barrow described it, had come.

However, denouncing alleged 'serious and unacceptable abnormalities', Jammeh later rejected the election result, demanded new polls and appealed to the Supreme Court. He then announced a 90-day state of emergency on his very last day as president.

As the inauguration date approached, and Barrow was advised to remain in Senegal for his own safety, the pressure on Jammeh to leave office grew stronger. The African Union (AU) rejected his claims of an unfair election and many West African leaders, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the EU, the UN, the US and others all joined in to condemn Jammeh's actions as an affront to democracy and the Gambian people.

Rapid military intervention

A procession of heads of state travelled to the capital Banjul in an attempt to persuade Jammeh to step aside. Nigeria deployed military planes and a warship, and Senegal got its troops ready to intervene while accepting 45,000 Gambian civilians seeking refuge. Senegal has historically strong relations with The Gambia and played a key role in the crisis – it prepared the draft resolution to be presented to the UN Security Council (UNSC) to secure support for ECOWAS efforts.

ECOWAS’s Operation Restore Democracy – which received UNSC backing and consisted of 7,000 regional troops – was launched within hours of Barrow's inauguration. The speed with which the operation was conceived, approved and deployed was remarkable – very much unlike previous ECOWAS endeavours, for example in Mali. Soldiers from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and Togo entered The Gambia on 19 January and encountered no resistance. In fact, in addition to the many ministers who had deserted Jammeh, army chief General Ousman Badjie had eventually abandoned the disgraced leader and vowed to welcome foreign troops 'with flowers and tea' in the hope of breaking the political impasse and avoiding any casualties.

Although he missed a few deadlines and ultimatums, adopting behaviour reminiscent of a stubborn child rather than a head of state, Jammeh eventually left the country for Guinea. This was an intermediate stop before reaching his exile destination, Equatorial Guinea, amidst rumours of having pillaged the state's coffers before departing.

Making sense of what went wrong for Jammeh

Notwithstanding the presence of some 4,000 ECOWAS troops, life is broadly back to normal in The Gambia. However, the events of the past few weeks raise some interesting questions. As was highlighted in the IISS Strategic Survey 2016, there is an evident trend among African heads of state to try and extend their presidential terms by any means – including by amending constitutions – sometimes giving rise to violent unrest. Burundi, Chad and Congo (Brazzaville) are a few of the most recent examples. What is more, the AU appears to have shown excessive solidarity with some of the longest-serving leaders. So why did neighbours and the international community turn on Jammeh?

It is early days to understand what exactly happened behind the scenes. Here are some initial speculations.

Firstly, Jammeh lost the elections and, in a way, ECOWAS could do nothing but intervene to ensure that the will of the people was respected. Things might have been slightly different had Jammeh immediately contested the results on the ground of alleged irregularities, instead of making the gross miscalculation of first conceding defeat and then changing his mind.

Secondly, given the country's small size and position – The Gambia is effectively surrounded by stable and pro-Barrow Senegal – the odds of Jammeh's remaining loyalists within the armed forces being able to resist a military intervention were low.

Thirdly, Jammeh's power had shrunk considerably: a sizeable number of civilians left the country (with the prospect of more to follow) and most cabinet ministers, and eventually the army, recognised President-elect Barrow. We could even be cautiously optimistic that the small size of Jammeh's residual support will make it hard for him to seek a comeback in the future.

A fourth factor has to do with broader regional patterns vis-a-vis recent elections. West Africa is now possibly one of the most democratic sub-regions of the continent. The heated 2015 presidential elections in Nigeria resulted in an unexpectedly peaceful transition of power. The same year Burkina Faso saw the 'freest and most competitive' elections ever to be run in the country, after an attempted coup against the transitional government was promptly brought to an end with help from ECOWAS and the AU. In this climate, intervening in The Gambia may have been an easy way for them to send a strong pro-democracy message across the sub-region and the continent as a whole.

Finally, and most importantly, Jammeh did not enjoy great regional standing, unlike other West African strongmen. Elsewhere in the region long-serving presidents have managed to hold on to power. Idriss Deby, President of Chad since 1990, removed term limits and secured his fifth re-election in 2016. However, unlike Jammeh, Deby is a key regional player who – despite his autocratic tendencies – made a significant military contribution to the fight against violent extremism, both in the Lake Chad basin against Boko Haram and in Mali and the broader Sahel against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and its many affiliates.

Outcome and prospects

Some mystery remains around the agreement that was reached during the last hours preceding Jammeh's departure. With him were Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Guinean President Alpha Conde, who negotiated the resolution.

Ironically, Jammeh's new host, President Teodoro Obiang, is the world's second-longest serving non-royal ruler – he has been undemocratically ruling over Equatorial Guinea since 1979. Usefully for Jammeh, Equatorial Guinea is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – an institution already facing significant opposition on the continent – so we would be right to remain sceptical as to whether the allegations of torture or appropriation of government finances against him will lead anywhere.

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