Gambia’s crisis proves Africa’s democratic resolve
BEFORE fleeing over the weekend, president Yahya Jammeh plunged his country into a political crisis whose outcome will resonate far beyond The Gambia’s borders.
Having conceded victory to opposition candidate Adama Barrow after the December 1 election, Jammeh backtracked a week later.
For more than two decades, he dominated The Gambia, sustained by a mixture of repression and sorcery, such as his outlandish claim of a divinely bestowed right to rule for a billion years and his purported possession of supernatural powers to cure Aids.
The reaction of Gambia’s neighbours in the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) was resolute. They demanded that Jammeh hand over power to his democratically-elected challenger. The AU also lent its voice to this regional chorus with more conviction and purpose than previously demonstrated.
A landmark election in 2015 in Nigeria, West Africa’s powerhouse, ushered in the first peaceful handover of power from a ruling party to the opposition, while Ghana’s closely-fought election saw the incumbent concede gracefully to the opposition candidate just a week after the Gambian vote.
As the events in The Gambia show, three broad lessons stand out for the wider African continent, particularly for South Africa and Nigeria as regional powers with the economic, diplomatic and military wherewithal to ensure democratic processes are respected.
First, Africa needs a beefed-up supranational mechanism for election oversight. It is time to move beyond the controversy-prone approach which sets much store by one-off election observation missions. These have, time and again, proved to be inadequate.
The perennial spectre of opposing candidates simultaneously declaring victory after elections is a recipe for confusion and unrest. The truth is that Africa must reduce room for usurpers of the democratic will. Indeed, anyone in clear breach should automatically cease to enjoy recognition from Ecowas and the AU.
Second, Africa’s gradual but steady consolidation of democratic norms in recent years shows that the responsibility for more accountable forms of governance lies squarely with the people. As people across Africa rise up in defence of good governance, they will stand a better chance if regional coherence and solidarity prevail.
The threat by Nigeria, Senegal and other regional states to militarily remove the recalcitrant Jammeh from power, with the blessing of the UN Security Council, should be commended.
Third, we need more purposeful leadership and co-operation by Africa’s two biggest democracies on the questions of electoral values and norm-setting. Following the post-election crisis in the Ivory Coast in 2010, Nigeria supported the victorious opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara, while South Africa backed the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo.
Such a divide must be more systematically banished from Africa’s future international relations. The NigeriaSouth Africa bi-national commission rightfully focuses on issues of a bilateral nature, but broader common goods such as peaceful elections must also become a core component of the dialogue.
Had Jammeh had his way, this would have emboldened would-be usurpers of the ballot across the continent.
The DRC’s Joseph Kabila has also clung on to power unconstitutionally, disregarding the expiration of his presidential mandate last December.
The call needs to ring out from Pretoria, through Addis Ababa to Abuja and all the way to Dakar, that the continent is determined to safeguard the democratic rights of Africa’s people.
Winds of change bode ill for future would-be usurpers