By African standards, many had expected the worst the moment the Gambia’s authoritarian ruler for 22 years Prof Dr. Alhaji Yahya Jammeh reversed himself after conceding defeat to then opposition leader, Mr. Adama Barrow when the results of the 1st December 2016 Presidential election in the country was declared.
To begin with, it was out of character for the mercurial leader, who loathes opposition and had vowed to rule the Gambia for a billion years, to give up power without a fight. So it was no surprise that Jammeh changed his mind, never mind that in neighbouring Senegal, veteran politician President Abdoulaye Wade had conceded victory to his former associate and Parliamentary Speaker now President Macky Sall in the aftermath of the March 2012 presidential poll. Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan had followed suit in February 2015 by ceding power to retired General Muhammadu Buhari, another opposition leader.
In fact, in the same week of December 2016, President John Dramani Mahama had lost his tenancy of Ghana’s Presidential Flagstaff House through the ballot verdict to another opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo.
But to live up to his infamous track record as a man of surprises and unpredictability, trust Jammeh to raise the political temperature in West Africa, which has seen and continues to endure more than its fair share of insecurity, political conflicts, and instability.
Gambia’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) did not help the matter by adjusting the presidential results and thereby reducing the margin of Barrow’s victory from 7 per cent to about 4 per cent of the total ballots cast during the polls. Also opposition officials instead of waiting to assume power and then decide Jammeh’s fate chose to jump the gun, threatening to march Jammeh straight to The Hague for his alleged crimes against humanity. Jammeh seized the opportunity to harden his position and the rest, as they say, is now history.
Naturally, many had expected an intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). And the regional economic bloc, which had tried unsuccessfully in the past to curb Jammeh’s excesses, such as by refusing to endorse his election in 2011, did not disappoint. The relation between Jammeh and ECOWAS was frosty, to say the least, and it was no surprise that the organisation did not send any observers to the 1 December 2016 election. Even so, ECOWAS had its office in Banjul, monitoring events and its previous fact-finding missions did not glorify the intolerance of criticism or the alleged human rights violations in the Gambia under Jammeh’s watch.
But there were a couple of false starts to the carrot and stick intervention that eventually removed Jammeh from power after his rejection at the ballot box by his long-suffering compatriots.
The mobilisation of a military force by ECOWAS was a good idea, but given its cost, and unpredictability, military intervention is always considered a last resort.
While preventive diplomacy eventually won the day, ECOWAS’ decision to send Heads of State for initial negotiations with Jammeh, with the benefits of hindsight, was not particularly apposite. Given that there was no love lost between Jammeh and the organisation, rather than move as a “crowd” for a delicate negotiation, the provision in the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF) for the use of members of the Council of the Wise, should have preceded the direct involvement of regional leaders. To clear any doubts on this, President Alpha Conde of Guinea and newly elected Chair of the African Union played this role very effectively and efficiently.
At the end, with a combination of preventive diplomacy, regional boots on the ground and Air Force fighter jets in the air, Jammeh was escorted into exile in Equatorial Guinea, where he is now exhibiting his farming prowess.
Given the security situation in the Gambia, President Barrow was sworn in temporarily in Dakar 19 January, before his formal inauguration on 18 February in Banjul. At his behest ECOWAS now has a military Mission, ECOMIG in the Gambia, supporting peace and stability efforts in that country. The Mission comprises troops from Senegal, Nigeria, and Ghana.
To the uninitiated, the ECOWAS-led international intervention to prevent a potential calamity in the Gambia, which also involved the AU and the UN, through its Office in West Africa Office and the Sahel, UNOWA, might look ordinary. But it is a major achievement that adds to ECOWAS’ flagship ranking as a leading light in peace building, conflict prevention and management and integration among the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) in Africa.
In addition to man-made socio-economic and political upheavals and natural calamities, Africa has experienced some 200 successful and failed military coups from the 1960s to the reported January 2016 plot in the Niger Republic, with the attendant economic and humanitarian devastations. West Africa has been hit the hardest, with the result that ECOWAS, which was set up in 1975 to foster economic integration has instead, been bogged down by peace and security challenges.
But thanks to the unwavering commitment and determination of its leaders, the 15-nation regional economic bloc with a combined population of more than 300 million has acquitted itself creditably. In accordance with the relevant regional protocols and instruments, ECOWAS, in conjunction with partners including the AU, EU and the UN has pledged continued support to accompany the new Gambia on its path of reconstruction and democracy.
This was very eloquent in the country’s recent Parliamentary elections of 6 April. Under normal circumstances, ECOWAS only sends observers to monitor presidential elections in member States. But because of Gambia’s peculiar situation, the President of the ECOWAS Commission H.E. Marcel de Souza had to dispatch a 14-member Election Observation Mission led by a former Chair of Ghana’s Electoral Commission Dr. Kwadwo Afari-Gyan to the Gambia for the National Assembly poll. The Mission was supported by the Commission’s technical team led by the Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Mrs. Halima Ahmed, who had accompanied the Commission’s President on diplomatic shuttles that led up to the resolution of the 1 December presidential dispute in the Gambia.
In addition, ECOWAS has upgraded its office in Banjul to Ambassadorial status with Mrs. Vabah Gayfor now Head of ECOMIG and ECOWAS’ envoy to the Gambia.
So palpable were Gambians’ desire to express their civic right and the infectious belief in their unique electoral system during the April parliamentary elections. The electoral system provides for the use of glass marbles as ballot papers and metal drums as ballot boxes. To guard against fraud or multiple voting, each drum has sand at the base and voting takes place when a voter in the secret boot drops the marble which makes a bell sound against the drum. At the end of voting, the drum is emptied into a filter to separate the sand from the marbles, which are then tallied. Each candidate has a drum distinguishable by the paint colour. One obvious challenge could be the choice of colour where the candidates are many. Otherwise, the electoral system has worked for the Gambia from the 1960s.
Still, it is not yet ‘Uhuru’ in the Gambia. As rightly noted by Dr. Afari-Gyan during exchanges in Banjul with the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for UNOWA, Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas after the parliamentary elections, the political situation in the Gambia is still “fragile.” Indeed, on the eve of the parliamentary poll, political pundits had reasoned that the ruling seven-political party Coalition that brought President Barrow to power against Jammeh’s now opposition Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), was beginning to fall apart. This and the inadequate civic and voter education probably accounted for the low voter turnout during the parliamentary elections.
Somehow, the Coalition managed to gain more than 40 seats in the 58-seat National Assembly, leaving the opposition APRC with just five seats. Despite the massive participation of women, only three women candidates were elected into the new parliament. And how the Barrow presidency and the ruling Coalition will manage the parliamentary majority to cement national unity and cohesion through reconciliation for the progress of the country of some 1.9 million people dependent almost entirely on tourism for revenue, remains to be seen.
Beyond international goodwill, Gambians must now play their part by taking their destiny into their own hands, through continued demonstration of true patriotism and political maturity. The need for inclusivity in governance to facilitate national healing cannot be overemphasised.
As the ECOWAS Election Observation Mission noted in its Preliminary Declaration on the conduct of the parliamentary elections, the winners of political contests must exercise magnanimity, while losers should not see defeat as the end of the world. Personal interests must be subsumed to the greater national good and with recourse to legal and constitutional means in settling disputes whenever they arise. While there should be justice and measures to serve as a deterrent against impunity and human rights violations, recrimination or witch-hunting must be avoided. The new Gambia is still a poor country that requires all hands on deck to pull it from the pit of its dark days.
By a combination of forces, many Gambians have rediscovered their freedom after 22 years. The momentum and commitment to democracy which started in December 2016 must be sustained by Gambians leveraging international goodwill and support to turn a new page and enable the new Gambia to take its rightful place among the comity of nations.