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The Gambia: a new dawn for Africa?

Credit: theguardian.com
Members of the public tear down posters of the incumbent Yahya Jammeh. Source: theguardian.com

“I will never question Allah’s decision. You Gambians have decided.” These were the words that former president Yahya Jammeh spoke following his election defeat to Adama Barrow in early December. Fast forward two months and the defeated former president called for a ninety-day state of emergency one day before his successor was to be inaugurated. Meanwhile, Senegalese troops and Nigerian ships were posed on the Gambian border awaiting UN approval to remove control of the country from the hands of Jammeh. So, what went wrong?

The former British colony of The Gambia is a small nation that is wedged in Senegal with a rough population of 1.8 million. This small country has been hurled into our news cycle following the evacuation of thousands of holidaymakers due to the unfolding political situation. The situation started on the 15th October 2016 when the opposition parties decided to rally around a single opposition candidate for the usually corrupt presidential elections. The last election had seen the incumbent take 73% of the vote but the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) described the election as not free nor fair. However, with the creation of an independent electoral commission, opposition parties saw it as an opportunity to unify and get rid of Gambia’s second ever leader and dictator, Yahya Jammeh.

The man who was chosen to oppose President Jammeh was Adama Barrow, a former Argos security guard. This unlikely candidate emerged after prominent opposition politicians were jailed following a peaceful protest. Barrow quickly became a very popular man in The Gambia as he promised the implementation of human rights and investment in The Gambia’s main economic activity, agriculture. His rhetoric clearly did the trick as he won 45.5% of the vote compared to Jammeh’s 36.7%. The ousted Jammeh, at the time, accepted the result and called for a peaceful transition.

However, this situation did not transpire. This is hardly surprising considering this is the man who threatened to “bury you [the opposition] nine-foot deep” in May 2016. Mr Jammeh decided to petition against the election result due to voting irregularities. While this is perfectly acceptable, the problem arose when the court did not have enough judges to preside over the case. Out of the seven-member panel which is supposed to be in place, only one was available. This meant that the court was unable to come to a conclusion on the case by the inauguration of President Barrow.

Here is where the whole situation became interesting. As the Gambian Supreme Court is not fully constituted there could have been a scenario in which former president Jammeh refused to hand over power to Barrow and there may have been a cause for a recount. However, as Barrow has control of state machinery, he essentially controlled the situation. Therefore, Mr Jammeh’s fears were somewhat justified, but clinging on to power did not help him. With foreign troops at his door, he either had to give up peacefully or would have been forcibly removed.

President Barrow was set to be inaugurated in Senegal on Thursday, however, the operation was halted to allow Jammeh one last opportunity to leave peacefully. The threat of military intervention eventually led Mr Jammeh, a known dictator, to fly out of Banjul (The Gambia’s capital) into exile late on Saturday. Fortunately, foreign troops did not have to remove Jammeh, if they did it would have set a dangerous precedent of foreign intervention in a sovereign state which is something President Barrow has voiced concerns about. This is still a tense time for the future of this small country. President Barrow currently remains in neighbouring Senegal and it is unclear when he will return to The Gambia. Barrow’s spokesperson, Halifa Sallah, said a military aid would be sent into Banjul on Monday to determine whether it was safe for the president to return.

One positive that can be taken from this situation is the maturity shown by both the foreign and domestic parties involved. ECOWAS have shown incredible unity and resolve by attempting to pressure Mr Jammeh to hand over power. Rather than turning a blind eye to the event unfolding or using The Gambia as a political pawn, the East African countries have worked together to ensure that they find a solution. Reports of ECOWAS troops slowly entering Gambian border towns are started to surface last week, which again shows the maturity of their intervention. Rather than a full invasion, they are put pressure on Mr Jammeh. Furthermore, they have not flaunted UN rules. Donald Trump recently claimed that the UN is a relic but the role of the UN in this situation has proved that is still has a purpose. Senegal could have easily used this situation to annex The Gambia without anyone really noticing. However, UN rules and the power of economic sanctions mean they have respected the sovereignty of The Gambia.

The role of the newly elected president is a lesson to many politicians in Africa. Rather than call his supporters out on the street and incite violence, Barrow has been measured. He has insisted on a peaceful transition and put the safety of the public at the front of everything he has done. The actions of Barrow and ECOWAS is something which hopefully will mark a watershed in African politics. Rather than relying on half-hearted foreign intervention, like in Libya, African countries will hopefully be able to help resolve each other’s disputes and ensure stability across the continent.