The Gambia, the ECOWAS, and Deposing Despots

Current Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. Image Courtesy of BBC

“I’m saying the document is just the beginning. A constitutional democracy succeeds only if the constitution reflects democratic values already alive in the citizenry … which is why our most important job is to instill those values in their leaders through discussion and debate”

-Dr. Lawrence Lessig, The West Wing S6 E14 “The Wake Up Call”

By John O. Sullivan

You’ve probably never heard of The Gambia, officially known as the Islamic Republic of The Gambia. I doubt I ever would have if not for the fact that my college had a vibrant (and controversial) student exchange program with the University of the Gambia. So bear with me for a (moderately) brief history lesson.


Map of The Gambia from CIA World Factbook

The Gambia is a very small, English-speaking country on the banks of River Gambia. It is less than 31 miles wide at its widest point, but over 200 miles long from its easternmost to its westernmost point, surrounded on three sides by its only neighbor, French-speaking Senegal, with the Atlantic Ocean on the country’s west coast. The Gambia has extensive roots in European colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and was a British Colony for over a century until 1965, when it gained its independence. On the 24th of April, 1970, The Gambia held a referendum to become a Republic, and their Prime Minister, Dawda Kairaba Jawara became their first president. He was re-elected five times, and in many ways the future of this young African democracy looked bright until 1994, when then-Lieutenant in the Gambian National Army, Yahya Jammeh, led a coup to seize power.

Since then, Jammeh has ruled in what can only be called a highly undemocratic manner. He has limited freedom of the press, instituting draconian restrictions, quintupling the cost of operating licenses for radio stations and newspapers, and he may even be connected to the murders of journalists and arsons at printing presses. Additionally, he has imprisoned opposition politicians and encouraged anti-gay violence, including saying he would personally slit the throats of gay men found in the Gambia. Now you understand why that study-abroad program was so controversial.

Jammeh has participated in presidential elections every five years, but these elections have been questionable at their best, and outright farces at their worst. His first election victory in 1996 came after outlawing his main opposition parties and using the military to disperse electoral rallies. In 2001, his re-election was initially accepted as a free and fair election, but concerns over election violence and extrajudicial killings, as well as a significant raising of the deposit required to run have marred the initial “free and fair” certification. In 2006, in a blowout Jammeh victory, there were widespread claims of fraud and voter intimidation, to which Jammeh replied “The whole world can go to hell.” In 2011, due to what were deemed to be overbearing restrictions on press and media, there was so little hope for a free and fair election that some international electoral observers boycotted the election, which Jammeh won again in another supposed blowout. It seemed to many that Jammeh would never willingly relinquish control over The Gambia.

But, last month, everything changed. Adama Barrow, a Western-educated businessman and politician, backed by a coalition of seven opposition and independent parties, won what appeared to be a free and fair election. And then, shocking many Gambians and observers around the world, and after decades of election fraud and autocratic rule, Jammeh conceded the election and pledged to facilitate a peaceful transition to the Barrow administration. Barrow is an advocate for term limits on the presidency and a judiciary independent from the executive, and his victory led to celebrations in the streets of the capital city.

However, not unlike the next-day hangover after a long night of elated celebratory drinking, it all came crashing back down. A week after the election, Jammeh appeared on national television and committed a full reversal of his concession, reverting back the dictatorial nature the world had come to expect from him, saying “I hereby reject the results in totality” and going on to say that he would not give up his position. In the following weeks, in an apparent move to limit dissent of his actions, he shut down three separate radio stations near the capital, and he also recalled The Gambia’s ambassadors to both neighboring Senegal and the United States, generally considered to be two of the most important diplomatic posts for that country, after the ambassadors in question co-signed a letter imploring Jammeh to respect the election results.

It was at this point that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) got involved. The ECOWAS is an economic cooperation group not unlike an early iteration of the European Union, with the goals of promoting economic growth and collective self-sufficiency for its member states, along with the long-term goal of a common currency. After Jammeh said he would not step down, the ECOWAS sent in a high-powered team of current and former regional leaders as mediators to meet with Jammeh. The primary goals of this negotiation team were, of course, to find a way to ensure the presidential election result was upheld and for Barrow to be inaugurated as president on the 19th of January, 2017.

These mediators have yet to succeed in negotiating for Jammeh’s removal, and it doesn’t seem that they will, with Jammeh publicly lampooning the negotiation team and the ECOWAS as a whole, and saying that he will not be intimidated or coerced into giving up power. In response, ECOWAS leadership made it clear last week that if they could not secure a transition through words, they would not hesitate to secure it through force, and that they would deploy ECOWAS troops to The Gambia in order to secure an orderly transition if necessary. Jammeh responded by saying that any ECOWAS deployment would not only be a violation of his nation’s sovereignty, but it would be an act of war.

In spite of the apparent failure of the mediation team, the actions of Jammeh only serve to further highlight the importance of regional organizations like the ECOWAS. There are a lot of dictators out there in the world, and even as infrequently as these men allow free-and-fair elections, the United Nations cannot (and should not) police and enforce every transition of power, much less can the United States. Even if the resources were available for the U.N. or the U.S. to put peacekeepers on the ground each and every time and place they were needed, that would do more harm than good. U.N. and U.S. actions are frequently seen as the illegitimate meddling of foreigners, permanently damaging the reputation of both the freely elected government and the intervening party. There are a lot of countries who, for good reason, view the United Nations as an undemocratic, unaccountable, euro-centric organization that exists primarily to preserve the power of those nations who were the most powerful in the world half a century ago (Also known as the permanent members of the Security Council).

By contrast, these regional organizations, though frequently they are not as well known, are in a much better place to serve as the intervening bodies in situations such as the one in The Gambia. The leadership of these organizations likely have a much closer eye on the problems in their own backyard than the U.N. might. Also, smaller organizations composed of regional neighbors have a much higher likelihood of reaching consensus or compromise on a course of action due to, if nothing else, the principle of Kirkland’s Law, that the usefulness of any meeting is inversely proportional to the number of people in attendance. Additionally, larger organizations like the U.N. (supposedly) consider everyone’s concerns. Regional organizations like ECOWAS or the Arab League are composed of member states with theoretically similar concerns and needs, allowing them to focus their time and resources more effectively on regional solutions to regional problems. There is also the matter of legitimacy. The same faults that many have with the U.N. structure as a whole will influence public perception of a U.N. intervention. This highlights the difference between an intervention to save a overwhelmed nation from an aggressor (Iraq and Kuwait, Russia and Ukraine) and an intervention to change governments, such as the proposed intervention in The Gambia. It stands to reason that the citizens of a troubled nation would be more receptive to a regional coalition of soldiers who look like them, understand their culture, and (probably) speak their language, rather than a U.N. force (which is generally almost entirely comprised of American and Western European soldiers) in the event of a situation like the one in The Gambia.

Ultimately, a top-down approach to intervention brings with it a series of extra challenges and a slew of historical baggage, both of which undermine its ultimate success . Regional organizations will be able to bring more legitimacy in the eyes of local citizens to a situation like the one in The Gambia. Some of the most troubled areas in the world, where armed conflict and intervention is most likely to occur, are the areas where the U.N. and the United States have the least credibility. Many in the Muslim world still begrudge American military presence there. Israel has come into conflict with the U.N. over settlements many times. The story can be told over and over again in many places throughout the developed world. The places where the influence of the United Nations is needed the most are the same as the places where the United Nations’ legacy is the most tarnished. While no one ever wants to have to resort a a military intervention, the first concern after a free and fair election needs to be securing the peaceful transition of power. When established dictators refuse to yield to the will of their people, and when negotiations fail, military intervention becomes a moral imperative. However, for the good of the incoming administration, and for the democratic future of the nation, the succeeding leader cannot be seen as a foreign puppet, which is far more likely to happen when the United Nations or U.S. leads the effort (see: Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan). A regional coalition lends legitimacy to the intervention effort by being more palatable to the civilian population and by being led by people more knowledgeable of and responsive to local needs than the massive U.N. bureaucracy. Additionally, regional intervention encourages the development and growth of democratic principles from the ground up, both in the intervention state and the intervening states. The United Nations and the United States should look to provide training, support, aid, and equipment to these regional organizations when the regional organizations are willing to intercede, and to provide aid and rebuilding assistance to the troubled nations after any intervention.

I ardently hope that President Jammeh will step down ahead of the scheduled inauguration on January 19th, but in the event that he doesn’t, the ECOWAS are clearly in the best position to stage an intervention on behalf of the citizens of their member state, The Gambia.

UPDATE: 18 Jan 2017. Today, Jammeh declared a State of Emergency and the Gambian National Assembly (which is stuffed with presidential appointees and members of his own party) agreed to extend his term by 90 days. This is absolutely the wrong move and is morally deplorable, as the people of The Gambia have spoken. The international community has seen autocratic leaders use this tactic to maintain their power before in both Egypt and Libya. At this point, negotiations seem unlikely to be fruitful, in spite of Nigeria’s apparent willingness to offer Jammeh asylum in order to facilitate his departure, and rumors that Jammeh may flee the country. ECOWAS has given no indication that this changes their position that Barrow must be inaugurated tomorrow, and Senegalese troops, which are leading the ECOWAS coalition, have moved to the Gambian border.


UPDATE: 18 Jan, 2017, 8:00 P.M. Eastern Time. It is now an hour after midnight in the Gambia. No word on whether Jammeh has conceded power or if Senegalese troops have begun moving in as promised. President-Elect Adama Barrow, who has been in hiding in Senegal, tweeted “My dearest Gambians — the presidency of Yahya Jammeh is officially over. The new era of Gambia is here at last. #NewGambia” at midnight exactly.


UPDATE: 19 Jan 2016, Noon Eastern Time. It is now 5 p.m. on the 19th of January in The Gambia, the day Adama Barrow was to be inaugurated at an official ceremony in the national stadium. It is also 17 hours after the deadline for Jammeh to concede power or face military intervention. Neither has happened yet, and it looks like neither will happen today. At this point, ECOWAS should reach out to the United Nations for a Security Council resolution in favor of intervention, along with supplies and peacekeeping forces for after Jammeh is deposed. By making the threat of military intervention and then not following through, ECOWAS harms its own legitimacy as a body which can institute change and emboldens Jammeh. The Gambia has chosen. Jammeh must go.


UPDATE: 19 Jan 2016, 3:00 PM Eastern Time. Just under an hour ago, around 7 P.M. Local time, Adama Barrow took the oath of office in the Gambian embassy in Senegal. The Gambian ambassador to Senegal, you may remember, was one of the ones recalled several weeks ago for co-signing a letter urging Jammeh to step down. Reports are that Senegal Army troops entered the Gambia to oust Jammeh shortly after Barrow took the oath, as ECOWAS had originally threatened.

Convoy of Senegal forces under ECOWAS banner entering The Gambia. Image Courtesy BBC

In his inauguration address, Barrow ordered all troops to remain in their barracks, and said that all troops found resisting the ECOWAS forces will be considered rebels. We will keep our eyes on the news and continually update this post as necessary with new information.


UPDATE: 20 Jan, 2016 11:15 AM Eastern Time. I apologize for a lack of update over the last 18+ hours. Overnight, ECOWAS forces were halted to allow a last-ditch negotiation session between Jammeh and the presidents of Mauritania and Guinea who were representing Barrow/ECOWAS. These talks appear to have been fruitless, and Jammeh asked for an extended deadline until 4:00 pm local time to continue negotiating, a deadline which has just passed minutes ago. Though not widely reported, a friend of mine who knows people on the ground in The Gambia has told me that Jammeh has dissolved his cabinet. I will continue to bring updates as they become available.


UPDATE: 20 Jan, 2016 1:35 PM Eastern Time. There are now early reports breaking from some less reputable news sources and also from my friend with contacts in The Gambia that Jammeh is now preparing a statement in which he will officially surrender power. If this is true, it a a victory for democracy and for the Gambian people, I remain cautiously optimistic at this point.


UPDATE: 20 Jan, 2o16 2:00 PM Eastern Time. Adama Barrow has confirmed via Twitter that Jammeh has agreed to leave the country.


FINAL UPDATE: 22 Jan, 2016 9:00 PM Eastern Time. After Jammeh left the country via airplane for an unspecified country via Guinea, ECOWAS forces entered the capital city of Banjul. Additional ECOWAS forces entered The Gambia today to provide increased security and to control strategic points in preparation for Adama Barrow to officially assume the mantle of the presidency in the coming days. President Barrow has asked those troops to remain in place to ensure peace and security during the transition of power, and it seems they will oblige. Expect a piece from us in the coming weeks looking back at the intervention and lessons that can be learned from it.

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