While much of the world was glued to the spectacle of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, a different transfer of power on the other side of the world became a symbol for the democratic aspirations of a continent. The day before Trump assumed power, Adama Barrow, president-elect of the Gambia, was also sworn in as his country’s new leader.
Similarities between the two inaugurations, however, end at their timing. While the United States seems poised for a turn to insularity with President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, recent events in the Gambia tell a different story—one of regional cooperation, common goals, and collective striving toward a greater good.
The Gambia is a small West African country of 2 million people geographically surrounded by Senegal. Following a bloodless military coup in 1994, a young military officer named Yahya Jammeh rose to power. Although the country nominally returned to civilian rule in 1996, Jammeh was victorious in each subsequent election, a number of which the international community deemed neither free nor fair.
Over Jammeh’s 22-year rule, he continued to become more eccentric, falling into the mold of an outlandish African dictator so often portrayed in international media. Most alarming to foreign observers were Jammeh’s outlandish claims of his power in goverenance. In 2007 Jammeh famously declared that he could cure AIDS with a banana and herbal mixture. In 2008, he said that he would personally “cut off the head” of any gay man found in his country. Human rights groups have accused Jammeh of jailing, torturing and murdering political opponents.
Despite Jammeh’s long and autocratic rule, Gambians have kept their good humour. Known to locals as the “Smiling Coast,” tourism makes up about 20 percent of GDP, and the country welcomes over 100,000 foreign visitors each year. It’s 80km coastline of continuous tropical beaches are a particular favourite of British vacationers.
It’s no surprise, then, that many observers expressed concern for the Gambia’s economic future as images of evacuating British beachgoers began to filter into the media on the eve of President Barrow’s inauguration.
Following an unprecedented grassroots mobilization and a political campaign that managed to unite the usually fractured opposition, Barrow won the December 1 election with a 43.3 percent plurality. Jammeh graciously conceded defeat on state television and stated that he would help the new president “work towards the transition.” Gambians greeted Jammeh’s concession with widespread street celebrations, and Barrow heralded a “new hope” for the small country.
While celebrations continued, Fatoumata Jallow-Tambajang, one of the chief architects of the political coalition and Barrow’s top pick for the vice presidency, vowed that Jammeh would be persecuted for his human rights abuses within a year. Many credit this statement as Jammeh’s motivation to appear again on state television and dispute the election results. Citing “irregularities,” he forced a controversial emergency provision through parliament extending his mandate by 90 days.
As Jammeh clamped down on opposition activity and deployed troops in the capital of Banjul and the country’s largest city of Serekunda, he faced widespread criticism from other leaders in the region. The African Union warned of “serious consequences in the event that his [Mr Jammeh’s] action causes any crisis that could lead to political disorder…”
On the night of Barrow’s inauguration, Senegalese troops, under the authority of the Economic Community of West African States and backed up by the Nigerian Air Force, massed along the border to prepare an invasion and force Jammeh’s resignation.
An intervention like this would have been unimaginable even five years ago. But the value of democracy has been steadily gaining ground in the region. In 2015 Nigeria saw its first peaceful transfer of power between two different civilian parties, and last year President Macky Sall of Senegal passed a referendum shortening presidential terms from seven to five years.
Even long-time dictators now feel the need to hold elections to legitimize their rule, as evidenced by Jammeh. But by allowing on-the-spot counting of ballots in December’s election, Jammeh opened the path for an opposition victory.
Jammeh has good reason to fear prosecution. Following former President Laurent Gbagbo’s unsuccessful attempt to cling to power in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, ECOWAS rejected his claim and with the cooperation of the UN extradited him to the International Criminal Court where he now faces charges of crimes against humanity.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid a violent confrontation, ECOWAS held off their pledged invasion and a flurry of high-level visits by other heads of state commenced. Caught between talks with Guinea’s President Alpha Conde and Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel and the imminent threat of military intervention, Jammeh agreed to step down in the early morning of January 21. Shortly afterward he boarded a plane bound for Equatorial Guinea, a country that does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.
Although President Barrow has since called for a Truth and Reconciliation commission into Jammeh’s reign, questions remain over whether the former president will be indicted. The ECOWAS negotiations gave Jammeh a clear path out of the country, but did not give him amnesty. Amid the confusion of Jammeh’s exit and the transition of power, multiple sources reported that the former leader had looted $11 million from the national treasury and taken multiple luxury cars with him into exile.
Despite these challenges, after 22 years of autocratic rule this transfer of power opens the door to a new beginning for Gambians. The grassroots mobilization accomplished during the election holds promise for more engagement and accountability. With its successful negotiations ensuring a peaceful transition, ECOWAS cemented its status as an effective watchdog of democracy in the region. For ECOWAS, in many ways constitutionalism has begun to trump sovereignty. More importantly, ECOWAS may provide a model for other regional communities, such as the East African Community which has been unwilling to confront President Nkurunziza of Burundi over his third term in office.
While protectionism and insularity take root in the West, leadership in international cooperation may begin to emerge from unexpected places.