Gambia Intervention: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

John O. Sullivan

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is a follow-up to an article we published several months ago about the impending transition of power and potential international intervention in The Gambia after long-time president Yahya Jammeh was defeated in an election after a 24 year rule. If you haven’t read that story yet, you can (and should) read it here first.

One of the things I despise most about the 24-hour news cycle is that there never seems to be any follow-through. A single story consumes the entire programming schedule for days on end, drowning out every other story, and then one day it just disappears, edged out by whatever the next big story is, and you never hear about it again. It is with that in mind that I pen (type) this Gambia follow-up. For those of you who didn’t see our original article, let me recap: on December 1, 2016, The Gambia held an election, as regularly scheduled once every 5 years. In a shocking upset, long-time president Yahya Jammeh was defeated in the elections. Jammeh had been president for 24 years after taking power in a coup, and had long been criticised in his own country and by the international community for his use of violence on his own citizens, widespread election fraud, and use of the judiciary as a tool with which to eliminate opposition. His opponent, Adama Barrow, had promised democratic reforms and institution of checks on executive power. After the election, Jammeh originally said he would cede power peacefully, further surprising his own citizens and the international community. Days later, he retracted that promise, and The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is a sub-unit of the African Union, declared that if Jammeh did not resign his post by the planned inauguration date of the 19th, that they would authorize a military intervention to remove him by force. It is 90 days exactly since the original ultimatum deadline for Jammeh’s term, so now seems a natural time to look back at those events and examine the end results.

What went well (The Good)

1. ECOWAS got the right result

The number one goal of the military intervention was to facilitate the removal from power of Yahya Jammeh and the installment of the rightfully elected Adama Barrow. This was achieved. It is important with military missions to keep the overall end objective in mind, so congratulations are owed to ECOWAS. ECOWAS achieved its goal of removing Jammeh and installing Barrow quickly and effectively. They stuck to their position in the face of Jammeh’s intractability, and they were also able avoid a drawn-out civil war which would have harmed many innocent people and damaged the legitimacy of incoming president Adama Barrow. Ultimately, nothing was more important than getting Barrow in and Jammeh out, and that was accomplished.

2. No Palace Shootout

The second most important part of the intervention went perfectly: There was no loss of life. ECOWAS had amassed an overwhelming force for the Gambia interdiction, and the international coalition would almost certainly have come out as the clear and decisive victor in an armed conflict, but it is far better to accomplish the goals of the intervention without shedding blood. This was aided by the ECOWAS’ willingness to continue negotiating with Jammeh, as well as the Gambian Army Chief saying he would keep his troops in their barracks and not take sides in the conflict. I’ll further address the negotiations in a minute, but for now I’ll just reiterate that it’s generally preferable to not kill people.

3. ECOWAS led the way… with UN Backing

On the 19th of January, the day the intervention was supposed to take place, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution in support of ECOWAS efforts to resolve the matter peacefully. The UN resolution was carefully worded to avoid approving of the use of force in the matter. Thankfully, force was not necessary. ECOWAS did move troops in, but they halted their advance in order to continue negotiations with Jammeh. The main point here is that it was a local coalition of ECOWAS forces leading the way, policing one of their own members, rather than the U.N. or the 82nd Airborne.

What could have gone better (The Bad)

1. If you’re going to make a threat, stick to it

So this might just be because I’m an American, or maybe it’s the millennial “I want it now” attitude, but if you’re gonna make a threat, I think you should stick to it. ECOWAS originally said they would move in on the 19th of January. Which they did, but it wasn’t until 7 p.m.; most of the day had already gone by when they finally made their move. They then halted their advance overnight to continue negotiating, with a new, extended deadline of 4:00 P.M. local time. This extended deadline came and went with no action from the ground forces. At the time, it seemed like ECOWAS was getting cold feet. Ultimately, we learned that these delays were to allow the negotiation of the peaceful resignation of Jammeh, so while at the time it seemed worrying, it was probably worth it. However, empty threats have real consequences. I still believe that ECOWAS forces should have moved in immediately when the deadline was reached and not stopped until they were in the capital.

2. The outside world had no idea what was going on for about 48 hours

On a related note, the outside world had very little idea what was going on for about two full days. News reports from reputable and/or global outlets were sparse, and the updates to our own blog post were mostly driven by local news organizations and connections with citizens actually on the ground through a mutual friend. While this lack of information ultimately had no impact on the final result, it left many people wondering exactly what was happening, sowing confusion in the international community.

3. There were refugees (but not too many)

According to reports from the U.N. and Senegalese Government, somewhere between 20,000 and 45,000 people were displaced by the crisis. Though that is roughly 2% of Gambia’s population, it is still a relatively low total number, all things considered. The better news is that the majority of them left The Gambia in anticipation of the impending crisis, not during it. Hopefully the limited military action will mean that the vast majority of them will be able to return to their lives in The Gambia and not become long-term or permanent refugees, and data from the UNHCR indicates that these refugees are in fact already returning.

What went terribly (The Ugly)

1. Jammeh made off like a fat rat

In Jammeh’s final days in power, he looted at least $11 Million from the treasury, leaving the state’s coffers nearly empty. He also made off with a fleet of luxury cars including a dozen Bentleys and Rolls Royces. It doesn’t send a very good message if someone can spend two and a half decades as a dictator and then get amnesty, a few dream cars, and $11 million. While I think that negotiating a peaceful settlement was great, maybe some or all of this could have been avoided with a more rapid and forceful strike by the ECOWAS coalition.

2. Barrows term has started poorly

What didn’t go wrong in President Barrow’s first month in office? Almost a month passed between the start of his term and President Barrow’s public inauguration ceremony (he was initially sworn in at the Gambian Embassy in Senegal on January 19), a gap in continuity which is never good for Democracy. During that month, he was staying at the Kairaba Hotel, a 5-star establishment in The Gambia’s tourism-heavy “smiling coast.” It was revealed that this was costing over $15,000 a week at the taxpayer’s expense, which was widely criticized for being an extravagance in a country where per capita yearly income is only $460, especially considering that former President Jammeh had depleted the national treasury. President Barrow then incited a constitutional crisis by nominating a Vice President who did not meet the age requirements set forth in the Gambian Constitution. His nominee, former UN official Fatoumata Tambajng, is 68, violating a stipulation in the Constitution that neither the President nor Vice President may be over 65 (this provision was carefully tailored by Yahya Jammeh to cut back on opposition). This was the capstone of a rough start to the tenure of an administration which had promised transparency, reform, and rule of law.

What we learned:

1. If you’re gonna do it, do it

While it was certainly advantageous to avoid any possible loss of life and property, decisive action from the ECOWAS coalition would have had the benefit of making the ECOWAS look strong and efficient. Appearance and prestige are as important as any other factor when it comes to international politics, and while the results of the intervention have certainly added to ECOWAS’s legitimacy and authority, a faster removal of Jammeh could have done even more so. Secondly, speedy action could have saved the people of The Gambia millions by mitigating Jammeh’s looting of the national treasury, but of course at the risk of an armed resistance.

2. Regional Organizations are capable of policing themselves

As I covered in my original article on the Gambian crisis, there are numerous advantages to handling interventions on lower organizational levels. Regional Organizations like ECOWAS are theoretically in a far better position for a successful intervention based on a number of factors. Due to their smaller size they are more likely to reach a consensus on action and respond to developments. However, that size typically precludes action because of a lack of willingness and resources to execute any plan. ECOWAS proved that regional organizations are in fact capable of executing these interventions successfully, and their actions have provided a good blueprint for similar organizations to follow.

3. It is possible to remove pseudo-dictators peacefully

Since (and to a large degree because of) European colonialism, Africa and Latin America have been plagued by authoritarian, autocratic rule for decades. The rule of pseudo-dictators like Yahya Jammeh frequently end violently. The last 6 months in The Gambia are a textbook example of how these people can be removed from power peacefully. I shouldn’t have to justify the idea that peaceful transitions of power are better than violent ones, but I will anyway. Peaceful transitions lend legitimacy to incoming leaders and strengthen democratic institutions. Violent transitions diminish faith in the institutions that are the foundation of of a democratic society.

Overall, if I was going to give the ECOWAS intervention a letter grade, it would be an A-. Besides Jammeh looting the treasury, the intervention went flawlessly. ECOWAS had the nerve to police one of its own members and put action behind words when Jammeh would not yield. When the intervention did come, there was no loss of life and minimal, if any property loss. Barrow is a beacon of hope not just for the Gambia, but for Africa as a whole. This intervention is proof that dictators can be removed peacefully, and that the Democratic process can thrive anywhere, with support. We wish President Adama Barrow the best of luck in the coming years.


Feature Image: Newly elected Gambian President Adama Barrow, courtesy of Ikenga Chronicles

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