Should regional bodies be arbiters of democracy?

Africa’s complex relationship with governance

The events happening in The Gambia over the past few weeks have been nothing short of unprecedented. Yaya Jammeh, long time president of the country, unexpectedly lost elections to Adama Barrow. He immediately admitted defeat. Then he had a change of heart and decided to hold on to power by declaring a state of emergency.

The regional body of West African countries, ECOWAS, would have none of it. Adama Barrow was sworn in as president at the Gambian embassy in Senegal, thereby making Jammeh illegitimate. The legal status of this move is murky, but it was enough to allow ECOWAS to send troops to The Gambia to overthrow Jammeh, who was now considered a rebel. Fortunately for everyone involved, Jammeh saw how futile resistance was and was convinced to step down and flee into exile before there was any military fighting.

Africans everywhere applauded the triumph of democracy, and the divisiveness of the ECOWAS countries, Senegal in particular. Dictators elsewhere on the country might think twice before refusing to leave power.

It is worth noting that The Gambia is a small country. They were easily intimidated by the threat of their neighbors’ armies . What would happen next time if it was Nigeria’s president refusing to step down?

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila’s term as president has ended. He is refusing to hold elections. Should the SADC regional body invade the country to overthrow him? It is likely to be a long and bloody war.

The peculiar thing about the Gambian situation was, Jammeh clearly lost elections, and he admitted it. In other countries, election results will be altered to favor the sitting president. What should the regional bodies do in that case? Should SADC countries invade Zimbabwe?

This brings another interesting scenario . What if a country changes their constitution to give up democracy. China’s system seems to be working well for them. What if an African country untry decides to try it? This is a problem for an organization that considers themselves the arbiters of democracy. Can you force democracy on your neighbors?

I cheered along with millions of people across the continent when a dictator was forced to step down, but the next time might be far more complicated.