Lessons in Democracy Promotion from the Gambia’s Constitutional Crisis

 /  Feb. 27, 2017, 9:59 a.m.


On January 19, 2017, Adama Barrow, the president-elect of the Gambia, was sworn in with one minor complication—his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, had yet to cede power after declaring Barrow’s election unfairly won. Though it may seem like just another example of the disorder and de-democratization of West African governments, the Gambian presidential crisis was resolved in a markedly different and more successful way.

On the same day, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution endorsing efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to effectively remove Jammeh from the presidency and instate Barrow. Hours after the issuance of this resolution, Senegal, which surrounds Gambia on all three sides, launched an invasion. A day and a half later, Jammeh stepped down, going into exile, and Barrow, who had fled to Senegal in the wake of Gambia’s crisis, returned to the Gambia five days later

In one week, regional allies of a nation in a constitutional crisis were able to resolve a potential civil war and reinstate democracy via an effective, internationally sanctioned, and bloodless (zero casualties reported) military offensive. Achievements of this magnitude are unusual in Africa, to say the least. Looking back several weeks later, can we understand what led to this success story for democracy promotion and regime change?

The Jammeh Era

Yahya Jammeh rose to power with the promise that he would re-democratize the Gambia, deposing its then leader, Dawda Jawara, in a bloodless military coup in 1994. The government, Jammeh claimed, was no longer a democratic one, and rather than representing the people of the Gambia, it was plagued by corruption and nepotism. Granted, these noble sentiments may not have constituted his chief impetus, as members of the military faction behind the coup were simultaneously seeking an upgrade in their personal wealth. Nonetheless, democratization was, at least in the public eye, what legitimized his coup.

A particularly eccentric character, Jammeh was known for his outlandish remarks, ranging from his claim that he would “rule this country for one billion years … if Allah says so,” to that he could cure AIDS with a herbal concoction of his invention, or his demand that he be referred to as “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa.”

His rule was marked by active repression of his country’s people. Jammeh restricted the freedoms of the press, murdered journalists, gunned down demonstrating students, imprisoned thousands without warrants, and led a literal witch hunt during which a thousand Gambians were imprisoned and poisoned on suspicion of being witches. All of this was done with what was called “one of the most feared intelligence agencies in Africa, with its tentacles spread across the country.” Unsurprisingly, the five elections held during his tenure were widely regarded as rigged.

Jammeh’s Fall

The Gambia’s 2016 election was expected to be a surprise to nobody. After a campaign marked by the arrest of an opposition leader, the death of another, and arrests of dozens of other dissenting voices, it was widely thought that this election cycle would treat Jammeh no differently than the last several. However, when Adama Barrow, a moderate candidate backed by a coalition of seven opposition parties, was able to defeat Jammeh by almost four points, Jammeh initially conceded.

Ten days later, however, Jammeh chose to “annul” the results of the election, an act prohibited by the Gambia’s constitution. While calling for this annulment, Jammeh proclaimed that the only credible reason for Barrow’s victory was the presence of “unacceptable abnormalities” in the election system—mass voter fraud, for instance. He offered no reliable evidence for these claims.

Jammeh sought out support from his Supreme Court in order to force the passage of a resolution through the parliament that would extend his presidency by several months. Neither institution would fully support him, however, and only the military remained loyal to him.

There was an immediate outcry as international bodies called for the results of the election to be respected. Despite the rhetorical outrage, only one country, Senegal, took concrete steps to effect change.

The International Response

From the United Nations Security Council to the US State Department to the foreign ministry of the United Kingdom, the international community offered full-throated support for a peaceful transition of power in the Gambia. Generally, international bodies demanded that all parties pursue a bloodless, diplomatically negotiated settlement before resorting to more violent means.

Senegal, however, had other ideas. The Senegalese government was able to effectively persuade ECOWAS to back an air and ground invasion of the Gambia for which the Senegalese military would take primary responsibility.

Jammeh was given an ultimatum by ECOWAS: either he would step down on January 19, when Barrow was set to become president, or ECOWAS would invade. Jammeh resolved to stand his ground, and the following day, Senegal led the invasion.

As the invasion proceeded, Jammeh continued to maintain his post. In a last-ditch effort to attain a thoroughly diplomatic resolution to the crisis, Senegal temporarily halted the movement of its troops. But, in the face of a stubborn Jammeh, the troops advanced again on January 21. Jammeh quickly ceded power and fled to Guinea. Barrow, who was sworn in as president in Senegal, was able to return to the Gambia shortly thereafter and take his seat, much to the relief of the developed world and West Africa.

Attempts by foreign bodies to interfere with local African institutions in the name of democracy are extremely rare and seldom successful. Why was this response so effective, how did this invasion defy stereotypes about failing democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how can studying Gambia’s experience help us to peacefully resolve future crises?

How did democracy triumph?

There are two readily apparent reasons for this unusual democratic success: first, the particular motivations for Senegal to be active in the Gambian transition of power, and second, the ability of the Gambia’s civil institutions to check Jammeh’s authoritarian power.

To understand Senegal’s decision to strike as it did, we must first understand the history of the country’s relationship with the Gambia. At times, this rapport has been one of companionship and at others one of Senegalese paternalism, but it has never been adversarial. An old adage in the region  goes, “Senegal ak Gambie benna bopa la ken manu kor haaj nyarr”—“Senegal and the Gambia are but one head that can never be split into two.” Both occupy the same region and share cultural and ethnic ties across each other’s borders.

Senegal’s geography, naturally, is a driver of the paternalistic side of the relationship. The Gambia is functionally enclaved by Senegal. True enclaves and semi-enclaves alike tend to enjoy security from and partnership with the state that surrounds them, as with the Vatican City and Italy, Lesotho and South Africa, and Portugal and Spain. As such, Senegal felt responsible for ensuring that the Gambia remained stable and democratic.

Additionally, Senegal had a strong geostrategic incentive to stabilize the Gambia. Both countries enjoy unusual amounts of peace and stability relative to other countries in the Sahel, such as Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Sudan. Both are generally more democratically organized and so are more attractive to European tourism and investment than their neighbors.

Given the particular risk of conflict in the Gambia—as Jammeh was able to divide factions of the military either in support of his stubbornness or against it—Senegal would have faced an especially large risk of spillover if a civil war had broken out. Violence in a semi-enclave of Senegal would be functionally very similar to a civil war in Senegal. Additionally, this conflict would run the risk of becoming an interstate one, insofar as Senegal professed its support for Barrow over Jammeh so as to actively inject itself into the crisis.

Senegalese president Macky Sall has made it clear that investment from the West and from the developed world at large is a particular priority of his. In his campaigns for office, Sall promised a project which he referred to as “Plan Senegal Emergent,” and for which he was able to secure a $7.5 billion investment from the IMF in 2013. This plan would develop Senegal into an emergent market by 2035, and its goals include attracting foreign investment and more private development.

Research has shown that higher rates of instability and conflict deter the foreign direct investment that Sall requires to put Senegal on the global economic map. Investors are fundamentally risk-averse. With this in mind, Sall’s economic agenda gave him a powerful incentive to act swiftly, decisively, and bloodlessly to quash the risk of a Gambian conflict. International bodies that Senegal wanted investment from, from nations to corporations, also had an incentive to support the invasion, since they would prefer their investments in Senegal to remain profitable.

Thus the incentives that prompted international actors to resolve the conflict swiftly are highly  intuitive. What is less apparent, however, is the way in which the Gambia had the internal capacity to stifle Jammeh’s attempts to hold onto power.

Most dictators of sub-Saharan African countries, once in power, look to amend their nation’s institutions to tighten their holds on power. Once in control, they tend to delegate military and administrative authority to individuals from their own ethnic or religious groups, and they quell opposition as soon as they are able to while claiming control over the nation’s judicial institutions. This was the path that sprung Sudan into civil war, South Sudan into its current state of genocide risk, and the Central African Republic into its civil war, to name a few among many.

Jammeh, however, was unable to accomplish these aims following his coup. Though he suspended the Gambia’s constitution once he wrested control of the nation from its first president and declared a temporary state of emergency; though he was notorious for his draconian suppression of those who opposed him and for mysterious deaths of journalists and explicit murders of students; though he often intimidated voters; and though his intelligence agency was expansive, he made several fundamental mistakes that Dictatorship 101 would have taught him to avoid.

The first of these mistakes was allowing the Supreme Court out from under his thumb. Shortly after demanding that the election be annulled, Jammeh’s plea to the Supreme Court’s chief justice to rule on the matter went disregarded. Although he fired and replaced six of his justices, his Supreme Court would still refuse to hear the case in a timely manner. Thankfully, one of the few justices whom he had not replaced was the chief justice who would not take his side.

Jammeh’s parliament, too, would not unify behind him to the fullest extent. Though he was granted a three-month extension by his parliament (which the ECOWAS invasion cut short), the Gambian national assembly stayed largely quiet on the issue of succession. This three-month stay was due to security risks that Jammeh convinced the parliament were real, so the parliament did nothing more than declare a common state of emergency.

Generally, however, Jammeh’s tactics for remaining in power relied upon intimidation. The process by which Gambians voted was observed by the African Union and seemed to be conducted fairly. Jammeh had hoped that he could remain in power if he created an atmosphere of fear by killing journalists, jailing protesters, and threatening his political opponents. This technique failed in the 2016 election, as public awareness of Jammeh’s methods and more frequent civil demonstrations drew attention to the fact that Barrow could win honestly.

Lessons for democracy promotion

A litany of factors, interests, and institutions, all of which can be generalized to apply to future crises, aligned to ensure that the resolution to the Gambia’s conflict would be relatively peaceful and democratic.

First, the foreign intervention clearly respected the will of the Gambian people. Foreign interventions in domestic affairs tend to completely replace political figureheads and actively support certain political candidates that foreign nations believe will best suit their vision of what would be effective for the country in which they intervene. This is often ineffective—as in the cases of Western interventions in Iran in the 1960s and Afghanistan and Iraq over the course of the last decade.

In this case, foreign support was for a candidate behind whom the people had already unified. This ensured that the existing system of government was not abused or managed from afar in a way that would suppress the will of the people. As such, intervening in this way was a more equitable and just way of promoting democracy, as it showed a respect for and deference to internal democratic choices.

Second, international bodies united in support of a common goal and a common method that limited external interference. The United Nations and other non-African associations of governments generally deferred to ECOWAS, allowing regional allies to come to the aid of their partner nation. This, too, was a strategic choice. Political intervention by a faraway nation or coalition that fails to understand regional customs, modes of living, and political will and interests of locals is often ineffective and imperialistic. There exist, of course, circumstances where outside assistance can be necessary to defend or mediate in favor of a certain strongly disadvantaged body, but these are rare and responses should be moderate when they are necessary.

Third, the existing political institutions in the Gambia were respected. Rather than attempt to dramatically reform the nature of the Gambian democracy, interfere with local election systems, or force structural adjustments or judicial reforms, the scope of the intervention was limited to the assurance that the democratically elected president—one chosen via institutions that would be kept in place—would be given the seat to which he was legally entitled. This is to say that the intervention concentrated only on the presidency rather than on a long-term reformation of Gambian policy and governance. Forced economic and political changes are often part and parcel of global democracy promotion, in which nations often push policies like trade liberalization and widespread federal bureaucratic changes that seldom align with local interests (but frequently align with the interests of the democracy-promoting nation).

Instead, acknowledging the validity of local institutions and attempting to implement gradual and marginal change rather than a forcible overhaul of government is a reliable way to ensure that popular support exists for a status quo system of government. In this case, a dictator abused institutions that were intended to be democratic; to conflate this with a dictator operating institutions that were intended to be authoritarian would be a mistake. Recognizing that it was the individual president who was flawed, rather than attempting wholesale changes to the government at large, was a critical nuance.

Democracy promotion is a tricky business. When foreign states see it as incumbent upon themselves to engineer democracies in other states, whether for economic, humanitarian, or ideological reasons, these new governments often quickly devolve into undemocratic ones or are created in an undemocratic way. Looking at a successful example of interventions of this nature—as in the Gambia—should give foreign states an idea not only of when, if ever, they should intervene, but also of how to do so in the least invasive and most democratic way possible.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Josh Zakharov


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