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Jan 28, 2017 | 14:12 GMT

6 mins read

How Gambia's Strongman Fell From Power

How Gambia's Strongman Fell From Power
(CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images)

The "billion years" of rule that longtime Gambian President Yahya Jammeh once promised have been cut short, despite his best efforts. For more than a month, Jammeh defied fellow West African leaders' pleas and staunchly refused to cede power to Adama Barrow, the victor in Gambia's Dec. 1 presidential election. The political standoff eventually led the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to stage a military intervention, dispatching Nigerian and Senegalese troops to Gambia to force the president out. On Jan. 22, Jammeh finally gave in to the mounting international pressure and boarded a plane to Guinea at Gambia's lone international airport. From there, he retreated to exile in Equatorial Guinea. Although Jammeh's departure brought an end to the tumultuous transition, his attempt to stay in power provides lasting insight into the workings of West African relations. 

Jammeh may be the latest African leader to try to use the advantages of office to overcome political opponents, but he is far from the first. Many strongman rulers across the African continent have defended their hold on power through such tactics as imprisoning opposition candidates, changing statutes to extend or eliminate term limits, or funneling more money into their campaigns than their opponents can hope to match. More often than not, however, these actions do not invite a military intervention from regional allies. Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, for instance, faced substantial unrest and allegations of tampering with election results after his home province reported a turnout of 99.9 percent in the August 2016 vote. Even so, fellow African leaders refrained from rallying behind Bongo's challenger and instead encouraged him to negotiate with the government.  

Jammeh's Miscalculations

What sets Jammeh apart from other strongmen was his approach to the election. First, Jammeh and his party failed to finagle his victory against the newly unified opposition. As results poured in Dec. 2 and pointed to Jammeh's defeat, thousands of Gambians who had depended on the stability of the president's decadeslong administration lost confidence in the leader. Then, once it became clear that he had lost the vote, Jammeh took to national television to concede defeat to Barrow. By the time he decided to reverse course, rejecting the election results and lodging a case with Gambia's highest court, Jammeh had already lost the support of his fellow West African leaders. Instead of fending off allegations of electoral meddling, Jammeh was leveling them himself. This prompted Senegal — the region's most interested outside party by virtue of its proximity to Gambia — to try to mobilize a response to uphold the election's results.

The longer Jammeh maintained his claim to office, the harder it became for heads of state in the rest of ECOWAS to keep turning a blind eye to the power grab. Still, members of the 15-country bloc had reservations about launching a military intervention. African governments are generally loath to interfere in one another's affairs, especially in the absence of a formidable risk to their security — a legacy of their long colonial history. ECOWAS, moreover, had no precedent for a military intervention in a nonviolent conflict. Though the bloc intervened during the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s, it did so only after significant bloodshed had occurred in the countries. Consequently, ECOWAS deferred military action until it became absolutely necessary and opted instead to address the situation by diplomatic means, sending leaders from member states including Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana to persuade Jammeh to step down.

Digging In

Diplomacy failed to sway Jammeh, however. His supporters in the government elite also stood firm behind him, probably in no small part because of the opposition's threats to prosecute members of the outgoing president's administration for human rights violations. No strongman rules alone; it takes hundreds — if not thousands — of officials to run a government, and countless people have a stake in the administration's survival. The opposition's calls for prosecution no doubt scared the many individuals with ties to Jammeh's 22-year reign, strengthening their devotion to the leader. That Jammeh had reportedly yet to receive an offer of asylum from a foreign government at the time likely encouraged him to dig his heels in to avoid standing trial in international court.

As the crisis dragged on, African states such as Nigeria and Morocco extended offers to host Jammeh in exile. But by that time, Jammeh had rallied enough support from the military and security services to boost his confidence. The ECOWAS countries reconsidered their approach. On Jan. 19, Senegalese troops had gathered at their country's borders with Gambia, and at least one Nigerian air force jet flew over the Gambian capital, Banjul. At the same time, diplomatic efforts to twist Jammeh's arm continued. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz flew to Banjul on the same day and spent several hours talking with Jammeh. Eventually, the longtime Gambian president stepped down and accepted exile in Equatorial Guinea with no overt promise of immunity; after all, ECOWAS is open to compromise with ousted leaders, but it will not grant them blank checks. Nonetheless, the arrangement is favorable for the outgoing and incoming Gambian presidents alike. Equatorial Guinea's leader, Teodoro Obiang, is another strongman who will likely not give Jammeh up to an international court — as the Nigerian government did with exiled former Liberian President Charles Taylor in the 2000s. Furthermore, Equatorial Guinea puts Jammeh far enough from his home country that the new government can set up shop without worrying about interference from its predecessor.

A Bumpy Transition

That said, the new president will have his work cut out for him. Transitioning Gambia from 22 years under a government that defended its reign by violating the human rights of its opponents, real and perceived, will be no small feat. Barrow's first order of business will be to reform the country's security sector, since Jammeh's administration used the Gambian military and security services more to quell dissent than to defend the nation against external threats. The process — something other countries in West Africa, such as Ivory Coast, have struggled with — is daunting. Though Barrow will face immediate pressure to bring officials from the previous government to trial, doing so could trigger unrest among former members of Jammeh's administration. (An effort to arrest a lawmaker in Burkina Faso led factions of the presidential guard that were still loyal to their ousted leader to try to overthrow the government in 2015.)

Given the complications that await the new Gambian government, ECOWAS will maintain a presence in the country to oversee the transition and keep Jammeh's adherents — what few he has left — from interrupting it. The bloc may, in fact, continue its involvement in Gambia even after Barrow has established himself in power, for instance by advising the new president as he takes control of the country's institutions and security forces. Barrow will likely forge especially close relations with Senegal, both for its role in staging the intervention and for the geographic ties that bind his country to its neighbor. For the government in Dakar, Jammeh's fall is a welcome development because Senegalese leaders long suspected him of providing support to rebels in their country's Casamance region. The loss of Jammeh's backing could strengthen the latest shaky peace deal that ended the decadeslong insurgency in Casamance in 2014. In the meantime, ECOWAS troops will continue to scour Gambia for weapons and rebel holdouts.

The recent crisis in Gambia marked a turning point not only for the country itself but also for ECOWAS, which has now established a precedent for intervening in nonviolent conflicts. That the bloc's members broke with custom to dispatch troops to resolve a political conflict proved that West African states will not stand idly by in the face of a blatant power grab. Jammeh will doubtless reflect on this lesson as he lives out his exile in Equatorial Guinea.

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