International Affairs

A lesson from Africa

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While President Trump was taking the oath of office in Washington, the tiny African country of Gambia was embroiled in a political crisis. 

{mosads}Former President Yahya Jammeh, who was defeated in national polls in December, had annulled the elections, and declared a state of emergency with the intent of perpetuating himself in power.


The Gambia, popularly called the “smiling coast of Africa” because of her beautiful beaches and landscape, had lived under the brutal and repressive regime of Jammeh for 22 years. It took the collective efforts of many presidents and mediators and the threat of forceful removal from the economic bloc of the West African sub-region, ECOWAS, for Jammeh to reluctantly cede power and go into exile on Jan. 21. He had boasted that it was only God who could remove him from power, and that he would rule the country for a billion years if God so wills. 

This sad phase in Gambian history offers important lessons for the world. The first is that the crisis was resolved without any shedding of blood. This was an African solution to an African problem. It took a lot of negotiation, dialogue, patience and compromise, and serves notice to other African dictators that the power of the ballot cannot be drowned by the noise of bullets and bombs.

This was quite different when compared to a similar situation in another African country, Cote d’Ivoire, when French troops and the French government intervened in the political crisis that followed the election in 2010. In that case, the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refused to hand over power to the man who defeated him, Alassane Ouattara. What followed the French intervention was a bloody civil war whose effects have contributed to the current mutiny of the armed forces in that country.

We can point to many other Western interventions in Africa that ended in disaster, such as Somalia and Libya, turning these countries into failed states and hotbeds of terrorism.

In the past, Africa was overpopulated with dictators, who personalized the powers of the state, suppressed opposition, abused human rights, and siphoned the wealth of the land. In the past, African leaders defended and protected their fellow dictators from internal dissent or external pressure for democratic reforms. Things are changing in Africa, and this is good news!  

The success of democratic changes and reform in many African countries today has been anchored on the shoulders of a strong and vibrant civil society — the so-called cheetahs, that is, young Africans, who are tired of being under brutal dictators.

It is the young people in Gambia who led the quiet revolution that led to Jammeh’s defeat at the polls. It was the young men and women in another West African country, Burkina Faso, who rose up against dictator Blaise Compaoré in 2014, ending his repressive regime of over 20 years. The days of sit-tight African dictators are numbered.

The logic of dictatorship in Africa, like all instances of malfeasant leadership, operates on deceit, destruction and denial. It also creates and feeds on structural violence; it swamps the social compact with all kinds of false narratives about the state, usurps the agency of the people and sublets the common good to the narrow selfish interests and egotistic peregrination of the dictator. 

This pattern of structural violence creates an ever-revolving chain of poverty, fear, frustration and unmitigated suffering.

In some cases, countries may display occasional progress, but dictators do not build sustainable systems and structures for the nation; rather, they build these for themselves and their own core groups and narrow support base.

There are some Africans who argue that it is better to live under a stable country with a dictatorial leader than live with the chaos and wars that usually follow contested elections. But this argument is very self-defeating.

The new president has promised to pursue the path of national reconciliation and to rebuild the country’s institutions of governance and broken systems and structures. The road to recovery will no doubt be long for The Gambia. But it is the hope of all Africans that the collective will of Gambians, and the support of the rest of Africa and the international community, will bring new light and hope to this long-suffering land.


Stan Chu Ilo, Ph.D., is research professor of African Studies at DePaul University and founder and president of Canadian Samaritans for Africa. He is a commentator for Al-Jezzera and Canada Television, and has written for CNN African Voices and the Chicago Tribune.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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