Get­ting away with mur­der

The Gam­bia demon­strates that power still does not rest with the peo­ple in Africa

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Azad Essa is a jour­nal­ist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox AZAD ESSA

THERE was danc­ing in the streets when Yahya Jam­meh, the for­mer pres­i­dent of The Gam­bia, boarded a plane and headed to Equa­to­rial Guinea.

The 51-year-old, who ruled The Gam­bia for more than 22 years, fi­nally stepped aside after los­ing last month’s elec­tion to Adama Bar­row. The na­tion breathed a sigh of re­lief. A bloody en­counter in­volv­ing for­eign troops and The Gam­bia’s army was averted and “democ­racy had tri­umphed”.

Long re­garded as a barb in West Africa’s fleshy his­tory of mal-gov­er­nance and dic­ta­tor­ship, The Gam­bia could now tran­si­tion into a new era.

An­tónio Guter­res, the new Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of the UN and Nkosazana DlaminiZuma, the out­go­ing head of the AU Com­mis­sion, tweeted their con­grat­u­la­tions. There was and will be talk of a prece­dent set for dic­ta­tors and pres­i­dents on the con­ti­nent; the Robert Mu­gabes, Yow­eri Mu­sev­e­nis of the world, and those of their ilk, should take no­tice that their time is over.

This how­ever is far-fetched, even non­sen­si­cal. Less than two years ago, Bu­rundi’s Pierre Nku­run­z­iza re­fused to ac­cept that a third term was im­per­mis­si­ble by the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion. Was he forced out? He is still there the last time I checked. In­stead, a thou­sand peo­ple have died, hun­dreds of thou­sands of oth­ers forced out of their homes and forced to live in refugee camps in Tan­za­nia and else­where as the po­lit­i­cal cri­sis deep­ened.

In an ex­am­ple closer to home, Zim­babwe’s Robert Mu­gabe lost elec­tions against Mor­gan Ts­van­gi­rai in 2008, but re­fused to va­cate the top seat. In­stead, he man­aged to se­cure a power-shar­ing deal with Ts­van­gi­rai.

Both Nku­run­z­iza in 2015 and Mu­gabe in 2008 were able to stay be­cause the re­spec­tive re­gional bod­ies, like South­ern African De­vel­op­ment Com­mu­nity (SADC) and East African Com­mu­nity (EAC), and the African Union (AU) al­lowed them to do so.

Jam­meh only left be­cause the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States (ECOWAS) re­fused to let him stay. Un­like Nku­run­z­iza and Mu­gabe, Jam­meh had few friends left in the re­gion and on the con­ti­nent, and there­fore faced ei­ther all-out war or an es­cape into the night.

The last time some­one had a sim­i­lar choice, it was the Ivory Coast’s for­mer pres­i­dent Lau­rent Gbagbo. He re­fused to leave and is now fac­ing charges of “crimes against hu­man­ity” at The Hague.

At the time, the French were strongly be­hind the change.

We can ar­gue over the mer­its of in­ter­ven­tion, but the ex­am­ple of The Gam­bia demon­strates once more that power on the con­ti­nent still does not rest in the peo­ple. The de­ci­sion to change regimes or shift power is still the purview of out­side in­ter­ests no mat­ter the peo­ple’s choice. It is in the hand of cliques. Whereas ECOWAS is fast be­com­ing a club of for­mer op­po­si­tion lead­ers (most promi­nently Sene­gal’s Macky Sall and Nige­ria’s Muham­madu Buhari), SADC and EAC are still made up of lib­er­a­tion lead­ers or par­ties.

There are other ex­am­ples, like Mo­hamed Morsi, forced out of power in July 2013 by the Egyp­tian mil­i­tary, in a move ac­cepted by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity de­spite it be­ing a coup. There is also the in­ter­ven­tion in Libya that started off as “pro­tect­ing civil­ians” to old-fash­ioned regime change and the mur­der of Muam­mar Gaddafi.

We should not fetishise what took place in The Gam­bia. For one, Jam­meh lost an elec­tion that took place un­der abysmal con­di­tions. Op­po­si­tion par­ties faced cen­sure and me­dia were hounded, in­tim­i­dated, the in­ter­net cut.

Then, after ini­tially ac­cept­ing de­feat, Jam­meh changed his mind when the pres­i­dent-elect Bar­row, in a poorly ex­e­cuted show of ret­ri­bu­tion, an­nounced he would pur­sue charges against Jam­meh at the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court.

And what was to come was not straight­for­ward. It took five rounds of ECOWAS-led ne­go­ti­a­tions. It took cabi­net res­ig­na­tions and the de­par­ture of the vice-pres­i­dent to con­vince him to leave. And when Jam­meh’s army chief said he would not fight ECOWAS, he had to go. The new pres­i­dent was sworn in at The Gam­bian em­bassy in neigh­bour­ing Sene­gal. It was this fi­nal act of dele­git­i­ma­tion that broke him. And he was gone.

In so do­ing, he es­caped with loot re­port­edly worth mil­lions of dol­lars and more im­por­tantly, any ac­count­abil­ity for more than two decades of crimes against civil­ians, jour­nal­ists and politi­cians. In its place, a truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mis­sion has been promised.

Is there a sliver of hope from the events in The Gam­bia? Cer­tainly.

A 59 per­cent voter turnout speaks vol­umes and the pop­u­lar can­di­date will lead. But when Jam­meh came to power in 1994, he too came in with the prom­ise of a bet­ter story. His takeover, de­spite it be­ing a coup at the time, was touted, too, as “blood­less”. But, what was to come, is all too known.

Lest we for­get that democ­racy didn’t win in The Gam­bia, but rather a man just got away with mur­der.


HEAD­ING TO A NEW WORLD: Gam­bian refugees re­turn to Ban­jul after Yahya Jam­meh agreed to cede power and go into ex­ile.

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