Jammeh’s Downfall and the Future of Democracy in Africa

While Donald Trump was being inaugurated as president facing concerns of conflicts of interests and creeping authoritarianism, the longtime Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh was deposed by a united opposition and a strong, purely West African diplomatic and military effort under the leadership of the regional organization ECOWAS. West Africa, against stereotypes, is a light in a dark time for democracy worldwide.

By Rasmus Fonnesbæk Andersen, PhD fellow in Political Science, University of Copenhagen

BANJUL, THE GAMBIA: Donald Trump was not the only president inaugurated in January of 2017. The day before the much-discussed inauguration in Washington D.C., the former security guard and political upstart Adama Barrow was sworn into office as president of the small African country The Gambia from his exile in Dakar. Whereas Trump’s speech was dark and incriminated his predecessors, Barrow struck a conciliatory note declaring himself president for all. This in spite of Barrow facing ex-president Yahya Jammeh who was unwilling to relinquish power and the armed forces supporting him. Two days after Barrow’s inauguration-in-exile, and one day after Trump’s, Jammeh’s plane finally left the tarmac for his own new exile in Equatorial Guinea, another African mini-state led by a megalomaniac longtime dictator.

Trump’s America First presidency and the EU’s struggle for survival augur in a time when western countries will be less concerned with promoting democracy and human rights both within their own borders and in the rest of the world. But there are still forces fighting for democracy and regions making democratic advances.

In West Africa, contrary to Robert Kaplan’s predictions in his instant 1994 classic ”The Coming Anarchy” in The Atlantic Magazine, both Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Liberia have seen strong democratic progress in 2015 and 2016. As a matter of fact, these four West African countries were highlighted as the world’s most democratically improved with Myanmar and Sri Lanka in Freedom House’s last report on Freedom in the World. That regional development laid the foundations for the downfall of a ruthless strongman in The Gambia last week.

Crisis in the Gambia

The Gambia is continental Africa’s smallest country. It has about two million inhabitants distributed over a narrow strip of land that is up to 30 miles high and 300 miles long and perfectly encircled by Senegal and the Atlantic Sea to the west. Despite its small size, more than 15,000 people fled The Gambia in 2015, and more left in 2016. Per capita, more refugees have come from The Gambia to Europe than from any other country in recent years. In the first weeks of 2017, 45,000 Gambians have fled to Senegal and nearby Guinea-Bissau according to UNHCR.

Yahya Jammeh has presided over The Gambia since a coup in 1994, but surprisingly lost the December 1st election severe manipulation notwithstanding. The reason for 2017’s massive refugee stream (which I briefly became a part of last week) was the intensification of tensions in the run-up to the end of Jammeh’s term and the inauguration of newly elected president Adama Barrow on Thursday January 19th. Other West African countries, led by Senegal, Nigeria and Liberia, had promised to use force to dislodge Jammeh if he would not step down of his own volition.

The fear of prolonged war with the international forces or, in the absence of an international intervention, massacres in revenge from Jammeh and his security forces led many to flee the country or its cities to stay with family members in the rural hinterlands.

I got to experience last week’s tension myself when I was detained by two machine gun-toting soldiers who confiscated my phone to go through the pictures I had taken of the ultra-modernist Gambian National Assembly in The Gambia’s port capital of Banjul.

I had also taken pictures of hundreds of Jammeh supporters in bright and dark green t-shirts and dresses with his name and face on them. I was then apprehended by an agitated soldier with a machine gun. I was a suspect. What was I doing here? He asked my name, hotel and room number, phone number and took my phone to look through my photos. Another, higher-ranking soldier came over. I gave them a different hotel name and tried to calm them down. After about 15 minutes, they put me on a shared car out of Banjul.

I thought to myself, somewhat guiltily, that I was lucky to have white skin and a foreign passport. The next day, Gambian-British Monica Njie was put in the National Intelligency Agency detention center known for torturing detainees for taking pictures of women and children taking the ferry to flee The Gambia. She was kept for two days without the chance to feed her 18-month-old baby.

After this experience, I fled to Senegal in an old, overcrowded Toyota alongside 11 Gambians also fearing the breakout of overt conflict.

I sat next to 20-year-old Fatou (not her real name) from Fajikunda. Her kids were sent off to Senegal with their father the day before, but her mother and grandmother stayed behind. Sweet, fluent in English, French, Wolof and Mandinka, she had woken up regretting the decision to stay behind to care for the elders. She couldn’t bear to be without her family. She said three quarters of her acquaintances had left, and that it was purely money or health issues for those staying behind. She brought four large improvised bags (bowls with fabric tied around them), including pots and pans.

There were twelve of us in the sept-places, so named because it (barely) fits seven besides the driver.

There was desperation when we stopped in the baking heat in front of a bridge shortly after leaving the bus station. The driver refused to go further, said there were too many of us, and that people had brought too much luggage. We had already paid what were substantial, elevated sums for these refugees. Would the driver abandon us? Would we reach our destination? After a 45 minute wait, he returned and we boarded the bus again to continue on through seven military checkpoints that often required greasing to pass. We made the 110 km journey in almost seven hours.

Jammeh’s rule of terror

Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup in 1994. Since then, he has concentrated more and more power in himself. In 2011 he famously told the BBC that he would rule the country for a billion years, inshallah.

As so many other dictators, he killed journalists, regime opponents and student protesters. If they were lucky, they were only tortured in the infamous National Intelligence Agency detention center in Tanji, just a few blocks from the beautiful white sand beaches that British, German, Dutch and Scandinavian tourists have come for since the 1960s.

However, in recent years his regime also became one of the more exotic authoritarian species: in 2007 he declared that he could cure HIV/AIDS, and later also asthma and high blood pressure, using an herbal ointment he had concocted. In 2009 the death of his aunt led to a literal witch-hunt in which 1000 village-dwelling Gambians were suspected of dark magic and made to drink a hallucinogenic potion that killed at least two of them. Around the same time he vowed to decapitate any homosexual discovered in The Gambia and promised to be “stricter than Iran” on the issue.

The beginning of the end

Why did Jammeh lose this election, his fourth? In short, he created an unnecessary economic crisis, threatened and insulted the largest ethnic group in The Gambia, the Mandinkas, and created a broad alliance against him when severe repression backfired.

After a drought in 2013 and a dip in the important tourist due to the Ebola outbreak in nearby Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the economy was already reeling when Jammeh drastically increased the customs fee that truck drivers pay to enter The Gambia in March 2016. He thereby unleashed a boycott and heavily inflated prices, shortages of food and other basic necessities.

A few months later he gave a peculiarly conspiratorial speech about the role of the Mandinkas in The Gambia that amongst other things saw him yelling that they would never come to hold power and that he would eradicate them. Since Mandinkas make up more than 40 percent of the population, he made himself deeply unpopular with swathes of the electorate as well as with the UN’s special rapporteur for genocide.

Finally, Jammeh’s paramilitary guard (known as the ‘Jungulers’) tortured and murdered a number of senior members of the United Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, who had been arrested at a rally. Many of the survivors were then jailed before the election and were unable to run and campaign. Paradoxically, the repression provoked opposition forces to join together in the broadest opposition alliance thus far I The Gambia. A third party consisting of defectors from Jammeh’s governments also ran a presidential candidate and siphoned off votes from Jammeh.

The December 2016 election

The election on December 1st was not monitored by international observers as is custom in West Africa, but ECOWAS’s pre-election report criticized it sharply. As in previous elections, Jammeh used state resources to campaign and opposition voters and candidates were harassed, to put it mildly, after the imprisonment of the UDP senior leadership. Furthermore, Gambians’ internet access was cut off from the morning of the election to encumber opposition attempts to coordinate their monitoring of election fraud.

In spite of this uneven playing field the population had had enough. Jammeh won in his home region, but in the rest of the country Adama Barrow prevailed on election day.

I spoke to Modou (not his real name) on the Banjul-Barra ferry after Jammeh’s departure. He was a teacher who was heading back to the village where he teaches agricultural science. He said that the mood — symbolized by the open discussions of government and Jammeh that a loud group of Mandinkas were having next to us — had changed dramatically.

For his entire life, people were scared to talk in public. Only family and the nearest friends you would speak honestly with. Jammeh’s spies in the National Intelligence Agency and their informers were everywhere — or at least that what everyone thought. I have heard this from countless others. Everyone had personal experiences of an uncle or an acquaintance who disappeared. Some came back, others didn’t.

Modou told me the mood changed already before Adama Barrow had won the election. In the three week campaign, there was actual discussion and competition. In the beginning, Jammeh’s men arrested some who spoke out, but they could not arrest everyone. When some came forward and were arrested, others took their place. Eventually they stopped arresting. Busses, schools, markets, gatherings of extended family became places where political discussions were buzzing.

Modou described the change in the ambiance in a way strikingly similar to the way Duke University Economics Professor Timur Kuran explained the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. All his life everyone was hiding their true opinion, even telling on or correcting others who expressed what they themselves felt inside. But then a few stepped forward. Some who saw or heard them were pushed over the edge and joined them in denouncing Jammeh, his cronies in the army living large, the deplorable state of The Gambia relative to its neighbors. Then a few more joined them. It was a chain reaction. When many spoke their mind, even the more timid and nervous joined in. Once the dams had broken, there was no way to return to the status quo. And this happened already during the campaign.

A week of freedom

Surprisingly, Yahya Jammeh called Adama Barrow on live TV to congratulate him on his victory on election night. Gambians in Banjul and the nearby commercial city of Serekunda celebrated wildly at the prospect of a new government. The median age is 20 in the Gambia, and thus more than half of the population has never known another president than Jammeh.

The next week Yahya Jammeh backtracked when he and his inner circle thought they might face human rights and corruption charges. He referred to procedural errors in the election and refused to step down. But it proved difficult to go back to before. Large professional associations like the Gambian Bar Association, teachers, journalists and others had openly sided against Jammeh and his 22-year rule. Political prisoners had been released.

Jammeh’s about-face and crackdowns one week after conceding defeat weakened the newly changed mood, Modou said. But words had been said publicly, masks had been taken off, and people saw that they were not alone. They found strength in numbers. The opportunists were shaken in their faith that Jammeh would continue to provide goodies forever, and even the beliefs of the staunchest Jammeh supporters had been tested.

More than anything, the reason Jammeh was forced out had to do with reaching the threshold that started a chain reaction against him. Until Thursday January 18th, when his presidential term ended, Jammeh has seen as constant weakening in the form of rising external pressure and a steady drip of defections from his government, the legal system, civil service and military.

The most important factor preventing Jammeh from carrying on as if nothing had happened snd reconsolidate power has been the regional bloc ECOWAS.

A new, pro-democratic actor in West African politics

ECOWAS stands for the Economic Community of West African States. It used to be a relatively docile grouping of 15 West African states in favor of increasing regional economic integration. In the 1990s a framework for military cooperation was added, and ECOWAS contributed troops to intervene in civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. In recent years ECOWAS, headquartered in the Nigerian capital Abuja, has also become a formidable proponent of democracy in West African politics.

In 2016 ECOWAS organized large and technically demanding election observations inBenin, Ghana, Niger and Cabo Verde with up to 130 observers in the mold of observations done by the EU, OSCE and OAS. ECOWAS also played an important role in the diplomatic efforts around the Ivorian election in 2010 and the conclusion of the ensuing civil war after which Laurent Gbagbo finally accepted his election loss.

During the Gambian crisis ECOWAS and a new generatjon of regional leaders like president Muhamadu Buhari if Nigeria, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Macky Sall of Senegal have maintained an unrelenting pressure on Yahya Jammeh. These leaders have all taken power after time in opposition, and Alassane Outtara took power in Côte d’Ivoire as a direct result of the last ECOWAS intervention.

ECOMIG: the intervention in The Gambia

Last week, ECOWAS first declared themselves willing to intervene militarily in order to let Adama Barrow take power as president if Yahya Jammeh did not step down when his term ended. Then Barrow was received as The Gambia’s legitimate leader on Tuesday at the Franco-African summit in Mali by over 30 African heads of state and the outgoing French president François Hollande. Most declared that they would no longer recognize Yahya Jammeh as president after midnight on Wednesday January 17th.

The external pressure made Jammeh’s regime coalition disintegrate completely: from Tuesday to Wednesday his longtime vice-president and nine ministers, including the ministers of finance and foreign affairs, resigned and fled the country. At the end of the first deadline ECOWAS had set for Jammeh to step down to avoid intervention, Jammeh’s army chief declared that the ECOWAS troops would be met by surrendering Gambian troops. In any case it was unclear what The Gambia’s poorly trained and poorly equipped army, estimated between 800 and 2500 men, would have been able to do in the face of superior force.

Yet Jammeh refused to step down, and 7000 Senegalese troops crossed the border shortly after Adama Barrow’s inauguration in Dakar and a resolution from the UN Security Council on Thursday night. They met no resistance and in the early hours of Saturday, a deal was reached between Jammeh, Barrow and ECOWAS mediated by the Mauritanian and Guinean presidents Aziz and Condé.

Jammeh’s departure

Jammeh finally left The Gambia on Saturday night on a plane full of his possessions and a reported $11.4 million dollars. Contrary to what was expected, the deal is mild. It lets Jammeh keep his fortune, avoid prosecution as well as enter and leave The Gambia as he wishes. It is even possible that Jammeh will be able to stand for the next presidential election in four years.

On The Gambia’s Atlantic coast, people were calmly watching tv and listening to radio to hear the news about Jammeh. It was too late to have a big party, they said. A guy wearing a #GambiaHasDecided t-shirt said jokingly to a policeman in civilian dress, “you’re not gonna arrest me, are you?”

Young men were smoking pot and listening to Yousso N’Dour. People were talking about their friends who had taken “the backway” to Europe because the Gambia was hopeless and how Jammeh had held it back. “Now we are free” was the most common reaction.

Much will depend on the implementation of the deal, and historically this type of pact has been difficult to keep once the departing leader has relinquished power. Senior officials in the incoming government have already pooh-poohed his conditions. Liberian warlord Charles Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in 2003, but was extradited and prosecuted in 2006 for his role in the civil war in Sierra Leone. Jammeh has thought about this. His choice of exile, Equatorial Guinea, is one of he few countries that is not party to the ICC, the international criminal court. Therefore Jammeh need not worry about prosecution for his crimes for now.

From The Gambia to the rest of Africa

ECOWAS’s role in the Gambian transition has been historic. Never before has a purely African and multilateral coalition enforced the results of an election. It is a new West Africa. One where free and fair elections and constitutions truly matter to both peoples and leaders.

The ECOWAS campaign and military intervention in The Gambia set an important precedent. ECOWAS has successfully forced a president to step down after losing an election by a combination of diplomatic and military means and now has a manual for future reference. In addition, it is an important result that yields political capital for ECOWAS, and that the organization will be able to use to achieve other political goals, such as increased regional integration.

Next, after Jammeh’s fall, only Togo remains a full-blown authoritarian regime among the 15 member countries of ECOWAS. This will make it easier for ECOWAS to undertake missions I support of democracy in in the future. It will also shape the decision-making of other heads of state and regimes, when they Consider manipulating or postponing elections, breaking with their constitutions or running for a third, fourth or fifth term.

Most important are perhaps the potential demonstration and diffusion effects. The political systems of West Africa will serve as inspiration to oppositions, media and civil societies in other English-, French- and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa.

That is already happening. In the African press and on social media, the interest in the microscopic Gambia has been overwhelming and broad, from its West African neighbors countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Cameroon.

Here, unpopular leaders have recently postponed elections indefinitely (DRC), manipulated vote counts (Gabon), run for third presidential terms against the constitution (Burundi) or just refused to step down after decades in power (Zimbabwe and Cameroon). These African countries’ populations longingly look to ECOWAS’s muscular defense of democracy in The Gambia.

Limits to democracy promotion

The task before ECOWAS was much easier because The Gambia is a small, relatively insignificant and diplomatically isolated country. The army was no obstacle, Jammeh had no foreign allies left, and he had actively irritated other West African countries by supporting rebel groups in Senegal and nearby Guinea-Bissau and embarrassed them with his antics.

But what is done is done, and the symbol stands.

West Africa still faces lots of challenges: fighting rebel groups like Boko Haram, continuing economic development and letting it benefit the poorest, increasing education levels, fighting corruption and building competent civil services are just some of them.

Outside of Ghana and Senegal the region’s democracies are also far from consolidated, and many could easily fall due to elected antidemocratic populists or presidents that gradually erode institutions to stay in power. The quality of West African democracies, such as their respect for civic rights, the independence of media and other aspects of popular rule, also need further reforms and investment.

Light in the dark

However, the region is a bright spot in a dark time for democracy in the world. In the absence of American and European pressure for democratization in the coming time, regional organizations such as those in West Africa or Latin America can hopefully pick up some of the slack as democracy’s cheerleaders and bodyguards.

Where this is not the case — in the Middle East, post-soviet Eurasia, East and Southeast Asia and the rest of Africa — democratic opposition forces and civil societies will stand alone in their fight against dominant parties, kleptocratic networks, opportunistic populists, absolutist presidents, corrupt oligarchs, brutal rebel groups, fanatical islamists and coup-happy generals.

In some places richer, better educated and more connected populations will still be able to achieve progress without outside help. In most places we are facing a democratic recession as Western countries’ and institutions’ priorities shift towards narrowly realist transactionalism.

In The Gambia, thankfully, the prospects for the next few years look bright. At least if the uncertainty of the last month has not scared off the tourists.

(Published in shorter version in Politiken on Feb. 21st 2017).

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