A Political Gamble in The Gambia

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

In a surprise move, The Gambian voters rejected the 22-year authoritarian rule of Yahya Jammeh on December 1, 2016 and elected opposition figure Adama Barrow to their country’s presidency. It is difficult to discern exactly how reliable the results were as no international observers were present: European Union (EU) observers were denied access by local authorities while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) opted to boycott the election, alleging that the Islamic Republic of The Gambia did not have the “political environment conducive for free and fair presidential elections”. Yet the international community rallied in support of Adama Barrow’s apparent victory, calling on Yahya Jammeh to honour the results and step down from power.

So far, there are promising signs for a peaceful transition. 19 political dissidents, imprisoned by The Gambian authorities during a series of protests in July 2016, were released on December 5. Among the 19 was Ousainou Darboe, a human rights lawyer and leader of Barrow’s United Democratic Party. Nonetheless, one must approach these recent developments in The Gambian politics with caution. The Gambian Armed Forces (GAF), and in particular The Gambian National Army (GNA), has long maintained significant influence in the country’s politics; for example, Yahya Jammeh came to power in July 1994 as a young officer at the head of a military coup against Dawda Jawara, The Gambia’s first President following the end of British colonial rule.

ECOWAS troops patrol in the streets of Barra town after the former President Yahya Jammeh left the country, in Banjul, The Gambia on January 22, 2017.

ECOWAS troops patrol in the streets of Barra town after the former President Yahya Jammeh left the country, in Banjul, The Gambia on January 22, 2017.

The Gambian military may have been encouraged to shift its support from President Jammeh to the opposition by ECOWAS’ recent mulling of economic sanctions against The Gambia, which is one of its member states, for its poor human rights record. ECOWAS accounts for more than 40% of The Gambian exports, with Mali closely following China as the top destination market for The Gambian export commodities. ECOWAS sanctions would have not only intensified social unrest in The Gambia but also deeply undermined the financial interests of military and political elites, particularly those vested in the deeply corrupt Customs and Port Authorities.

Perhaps the most important factor in Jammeh’s decision to step down as President and enter exile in Equatorial Guinea was a military intervention by ECOWAS. On January 19, 2017, a force of approximately 7,000 troops from Senegal, 600 from Nigeria, and 200 from Ghana deployed to The Gambia to “re-establish democracy”. Faced with superior forces, and with The Gambian military unwilling to offer resistance, Jammeh resigned two days later. Upon his inauguration, Barrow asked that a smaller ECOWAS force of approximately 2,500 troops remain in the country until the end of June 2017 in order to “ensure stability”. Although Senegal’s sizable troop contribution to the intervention might suggest that the deployment was more so about preserving influence in the country and the region, the stated cause of preserving peace and security in West Africa is plausible (see also John O. Sullivan, “The Gambia Intervention: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly“, Finest Bagels Blog, April 19, 2017).

In particular, the potential to diffuse social unrest in The Gambia, as well as the risk of a spill-over in the region, through a change in the Presidency should not be understated. Large-scale protests swept the country in April and May 2016, months ahead of the election, as The Gambians expressed dissatisfaction with deepening economic inequality. Approximately 43% of the population remains engaged in low-paying agriculture jobs, average economic growth since independence has been low, and more than 61% of The Gambians are estimated to live below the poverty line. This stagnation, even as the rest of the West African region generates excitement as a hub for future economic growth, ignited sufficient discontent for the United Democratic Party to offer a compelling alternative.

Under the new president, EU election observers have again access to the polling stations during the parliamentary election which were held on April 6, 2017.

Under the new president, EU election observers have again access to the polling stations during the parliamentary election which were held on April 6, 2017.

In December 2014, several United States-based The Gambian expatriates mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt against Yahya Jammeh, with four people killed in the process. For military elites in The Gambia, this failed coup and the increasingly frequent protests may have created the impression that a change was necessary – either wholesale and by violence, or piecemeal and peacefully. As such, the surprise victory by Adama Barrow and the even more surprising acquiescence to the election result by the military seems less like a momentous shift in West African politics and more so a testament to the versatility of The Gambia’s kleptocracy.

This is even more readily apparent when one considers how The Gambia’s new President will not have much political room to manoeuvre against the GAF. Faced with a coup of his own in 1981, then President Dawda Jawara requested military aid from neighbouring Senegal, which promptly deployed 2,700 troops. Efforts to unify the two countries into a new political entity – the Senegambian Confederation – soon followed but prompted tremendous backlash from The Gambian public and the eventual dissolution of that unified state in 1989. Barrow’s request for an intervention force from the ECOWAS, specifically Senegal, could later lead to his vilification by the same voters who brought him to power, especially if mistrust for Senegal’s strategic intentions does not prove to be unfounded and Senegalese troops remain in The Gambia beyond the June 2017 deadline.

As such, the December 2016 election is a promising sign that The Gambia is moving toward liberal democratic norms and that the ECOWAS can function well as a “security toolbox” for resolving or preventing conflicts in West Africa. However, it will largely be business as usual for much of The Gambian society, at least until the ascendant opposition parties can devise some means of implementing security sector reforms that curb the influence of military elites. If that cannot be accomplished, and if Senegalese troops remain late into the year, West Africa will face yet another crisis, worse in nature than even an uprising against Jammeh.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

This entry was posted in English, Gambia, Paul Pryce.

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