The roller-coaster ride of Gambian democracy ended last week with longtime strongman Yahya Jammeh’s exit and exile.
The process was not perfect. It appears Jammeh was allowed to keep a fleet of luxury cars and an unknown but apparently staggering amount of cash he is said to have looted from this small, impoverished country. Nonetheless, Gambians have a chance to establish a lasting democracy and other African nations seem to have their backs in that endeavor.
An unsettling series of ups and downs followed the December 1 election. Jammeh said he would agree to step down if he were not re-elected and even conceded to former real estate agent Adama Barrow, declaring in a statement December 3, “I wish him all the best and I wish all Gambians the best.” Jammeh. In the days that followed, a number of opposition figures were released from jail.
If it seemed too good to be true, it is because it was. When the final results showed Barrow’s victory was closer than it first appeared (though still a clear victory for Barrow – he received 43.2 percent, Jammeh, 39.6 percent, with a third party candidate Mama Kandeh garnered 17.1 percent) – the erratic and repressive Jammeh began backtracking. Determined to stay in power, he hunkered down and declared a state of emergency. As the prospect of violence loomed, other countries in the region decided it was time to draw the line and engineer a rescue of the country’s democracy. On December 13, the heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries made their first attempt to persuade Jammeh to step aside. On January 13, the African Union (AU) urged Jammeh to respect the results and give up power peacefully, warning of “serious consequences” and that it would not recognize him as president beyond January 19, the legal end of his term.
Amid fear of violent unrest, thousands of Gambians fled across the border into Senegal. Among them was president-elect Barrow. Senegalese President Macky Sall offered Barrow safe harbor until he could be inaugurated. Ultimately, Barrow took the oath of office in the Gambia’s embassy in Dakar.
With domestic support evaporating and international pressure bearing down on him, Jammeh finally agreed to relinquish power on January 21 and went into exile in Equatorial Guinea. A few days later Barrow was greeted in Banjul with a spirit of holiday jubilation. President Barrow has said he will create a truth and reconciliation commission modeled on the structure that helped South Africa move from the era of apartheid to a pluralistic democracy in the 1990s. He has also vowed to overhaul Gambia’s security apparatus, which became a feared instrument of repression under Jammeh.
To be sure, the success of democracy was tarnished. An adviser to Barrow acknowledged last week that Jammeh apparently stole millions of dollars in his final weeks in power on top of the luxury vehicles shipped out by cargo plane. If true, salvaging Gambia’s democracy was costly, at least in monetary terms.
However, Gambian’s exuberant hope that they will finally have a chance to live in freedom is priceless. In addition, the value of ECOWAS’s and the AU’s determination to impede the subversion of democracy and the rule of law cannot be understated. This was the latest example of African countries taking a united stand for democracy and backing up that stand with possible use of force. In late 2015, ECOWAS, with Nigeria playing a pivotal role, facilitated the success of democracy in Burkina Faso. Nigeria itself had experienced its first democratic transition in its history earlier that year.
Are we at the dawn of an era of African solutions to African problems? It is too early to say. While Gambia’s smallness and universal disdain for Jammeh might have helped create a unified front, it is a sign that more African leaders are ready to affirm that democracy is worth defending and strengthening. Current and would-be despots should realize that decades of dictatorship and instability is giving way to a more hopeful and democratic future for Africans. They can try to cling to power and stall for time but such charades go against what the African people want and what a new generation of African leaders will tolerate.