Terra Incognita: The Gambia’s defense of democracy is a lesson for us all

Hundreds of millions of people in numerous countries have been sentenced to live in country-like prisons due the unwillingness to confront dictators and authoritarian regimes.

STREET SELLERS are seen with portraits of Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, in Serekunda, Gambia, last month (photo credit: REUTERS)
STREET SELLERS are seen with portraits of Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, in Serekunda, Gambia, last month
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At a rally for the ruling Zanu-PF party in Zimbabwe the wife of president Robert Mugabe praised her 91-yearold husband. “One day when God decides that Mugabe dies, we will have his corpse appear as a candidate,” she claimed. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe, often with an iron fist, since Zanu-PF won elections in 1980 and he became prime minister. He joins many other long-serving leaders that dominated the 20th and early 21st century, such as Fidel Castro, Angola’s Jose Eduardo Dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.
Until recently Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia was a member of the “longest serving leader” club, having ruled the country since a coup in 1994. Yet today Gambia has returned to democracy. The story of how that happened should be a model for the world, but unfortunately, because Gambia is a small West African state and media tends to be more obsessed with Donald Trump’s Twitter feed than the goings on of billions of people in the world, we do not hear enough about this beautiful story.
Like many countries in the 20th century, the Republic of the Gambia first gained independence in the 1960s and immediately became in essence a one-party, one-man state under Dawda Jawara. From one-party rule came the inevitable coup in 1994 led by Yahya Jammeh. The Gambia is a small country whose shape follows the river of the same name. It has a population of two million people and is around the size of the US state of Connecticut. Under Jammeh democratic institutions existed and he won elections in 1996 and 2011 with around 70% of the vote. He took Gambia out of the Commonwealth in 2013, saying it would “never be a member of any neo-colonial institution” and declared the country to be the “Islamic Republic of the Gambia” in December 2015.
This was seen as an eccentric decision but it foreshadowed more authoritarianism to come. Opposition figures were jailed and when Jammeh went to elections in 2016 he expected to win. Instead Adama Barrow, a relatively unknown real estate executive, won 43% of the vote on December 1, 2016.
Initially Jammeh was conciliatory, saying “If Barrow wants to work with us also, I have no problem with that.” Eight days later Jammeh announced he rejected the results and was annulling the election.
IN MANY circumstances when rulers become increasingly authoritarian, the neighboring states, the United Nations and the world stands by and does nothing.
There is a drip-drip erosion of democracy and everyone shrugs. “It’s not for us to interfere in sovereign elections,” is the wink-wink-nod-nod of states. It’s why at the UN the dictatorships work together to put each other on the Human Rights Council, why the greatest abusers of women’s rights somehow run the women’s rights monitoring groups. Countries that supposedly support democracy work with countries like Iran without even an ounce of shame.
But West African states decided that Gambia would not be allowed to backtrack on its democracy. “If he is not going, we have stand-by forces already alerted and these stand-by forces have to be able to intervene to restore the people’s wish,” said Marcel Alain de Souza, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) commission president, on December 23.
Jammeh was given an ultimatum to concede the election and give up power. Colonel Abdou Ndiaye, spokesman for the Senegalese military, said on January 18 that Senegal’s forces “are ready to intervene if needed after midnight if we can’t find a diplomatic solution.” As 26,000 Gambians fled the country, fearing conflict, the militaries of Nigeria and Ghana both agreed to participate in operations alongside Senegal.
The next day the ECOWAS troops went into Gambia while Barrow, who had fled the country, was sworn in as president at the Gambian embassy in Senegal’s capital of Dakar. Gambia’s 2,500-man army put up no reported resistance, some of its officers having already decided to desert Jammeh.
Within days Jammeh had fled the country, taking with him millions in cash, and Barrow returned to the capital in Banjul.
Some of his first announcements as president dealt with protecting the freedom of the press, reforming the dreaded local intelligence agency and removing “Islamic” from the name of the country. On January 18 he was sworn in for a second time on home soil. Regional and international leaders, such as Senegal’s Macky Sall and US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield and UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson sent messages of support.
The story of Gambia’s transition to democracy reads like a perfect script of how regional frameworks, such as ECOWAS and its military arm ECOMIG, as well as the international community can enforce the rights of people. The UN Security Council declared in late December that it “strongly condemned the attempts to usurp the will of the people,” and that it supported President- elect Barrow to “restore the rule of law” in the country and respect the will of the people. Strong words have to be backed up by strong and coordinated action. At the recent Munich Security Conference numerous voices, from Angela Merkel to UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres, used the catchphrase “multilateral” to discuss the challenges, such as terrorism, the world faces. But multilateralism is easier said than done.
Hundreds of millions of people in numerous countries have been sentenced to live in country-like prisons due the unwillingness to confront dictators and authoritarian regimes. The regimes of countries like Venezuela are allowed to destroy the lives of their people, jail and torture opposition figures, and do irreparable harm with little blowback. The Castros and Assads and many other feudal familial regimes are allowed to run countries as if they were their own family’s slave-estates rather than have multi-party elections.
We forget what this does to countries in the long term. Mexico’s problems today, from infrastructure to the drug conflict, are largely the result of the rot that set in during Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) rule from 1929 to 2000. Egypt’s economy stagnated under Honsi Mubarak’s long tenure.
North Korea is one large prison.
We fear using military action and political isolation against tyrannical regimes under the guise of supporting dialogue and “peace.” There is a fantasy that sanctions will strengthen regimes, so the only real way to defeat tyranny is to reward it. But where is the evidence that dialogue and free trade with tyranny works? Iran, Algeria, Tajikistan, Eritrea, Cambodia, Cameroon – long is the list of countries with leaders or parties who have been in power for decades. Are we ensuring the increased march of democracy today, or has a new tyranny taken root in many places? What peace is there when others are not free? Are they who are left under tyranny enjoying “peace,” or are we simply abdicating responsibility? Gambia was an inspiring example of what can happen when people demand change – and their demands are supported by their neighbors. We often pretend that national borders are sacrosanct. As if by accident of birth a person living a few miles away from his neighbor deserves to live in a police state. But many borders are arbitrary; what is not arbitrary is human rights and natural rights. European colonial powers drew arbitrary borders in Africa and parts of the Middle East and because of them one person votes in elections and can read several newspapers and use Twitter, and another cannot. Regional frameworks such as ECOWAS can help ensure that the trends across borders are toward more rights, not less. It would be good if the efforts are recognized. International and state visits to these countries, a Nobel prize, financial support and media coverage might go a way toward showcasing what was achieved in Gambia.
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