Last December, when the United States and the rest of the world were distracted, absorbing the shock of an unexpected presidential win by Donald J. Trump, something quite remarkable was unfolding in West Africa.
A constitutional crisis, triggered by an incumbent president unwilling to accept electoral defeat, ended peacefully. Civil conflict was averted. Democracy restored. It was an outcome driven by a population’s readiness to risk-it-all to make their votes count, and defended by regional diplomacy and international law.
While it was the West Africans themselves, who took the lead in averting crisis, long-standing bipartisan U.S. policies in support of peace, security, democratic institution-building, good governance and human rights in the region had tangible impact. This takeaway is timely, as the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress negotiate a final budget for Fiscal Year 2018, balancing allocations for hard and soft power.
Here’s what happened.
On Dec. 1, 2016, opposition leader Adama Barrow defeated long-time Gambian ruler, Yahyah Jammeh, who had come to power in 1994 through a military coup. Jammeh had managed, until that day, to manipulate the State’s institutions for 23 years to maintain his grip. The Gambia is a tiny sliver of a country on the western belly of the continent almost swallowed entirely by Senegal, with the exception of 80 kilometer coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.
Initially, Jammeh accepted his defeat, in what the UN called a “peaceful, free and fair election.” And, initially, Gambians took to the streets to jubilate.
But days later, for reasons only known to him, the Gambian president changed his mind. There were serious and unacceptable abnormalities in the election, he claimed. And with those words, he moved to Plan B, diverting to the courts to overturn the ruling of the electoral commission.
Jammeh must have presumed that his plan B would play out like Zimbabwe in 2013, when 92 year-old President Robert Mugabe, in power for three decades, withstood pressure to step aside after a disputed election, with the blessing of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Or like Burundi, in 2015, when the sitting president, Pierre Nkurunziza, ran for a third-term despite, constitutional limits on the presidency. When the opposition boycotted the vote, he won. Civil chaos unfolded, but the East African Community (EAC) gave Nkurunziza a pass.
But the 14 member-State Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of the Republic of Liberia, the first woman democratically elected to lead an African nation, wasn’t having it. And neither were the other 12 democratically elected heads of states of ECOWAS, many of whom defeated entrenched incumbents in their own countries. Jammeh would not be afforded the political space to hold on to power.
The case under international law was made. On Dec. 12, with ECOWAS in the lead, followed by the Africa Union (AU), and the United Nations, a unified international community called on the government of The Gambia to abide by its constitutional responsibilities and international obligations, demanding it was “fundamental that the verdict of the ballots should be respected.”
Then on Dec 21 the UN passed Resolution 2337, which authorized an African peace operation, the Economic Community of West African States in Gambia (ECOMIG), made up of troops from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.
The ECOWAS heads of state shuttled back and forth to The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, pressuring their colleague to leave peacefully. The group included Ghanaian President John Mahama, who just days earlier had lost his re-election bid to opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo. His mere presence in the group signaling to the besieged Gambian president, this is what we do in a democracy when we lose. We accept the will of our people.
But it would take the relentless defiance of the people of The Gambia, and diplomacy, backed by lethal force, to dislodge Jammeh.
ECOMIG mobilized on The Gambia’s eastern border and Jammeh was given an ultimatum to leave. On January 21, he signed a political agreement setting out the terms of his departure. Jammeh jetted off to exile. Adama Barrow took his rightful place as president of The Gambia. And the Gambian people returned to their jubilation.
Many are now studying The Gambia example, looking at the factors that enabled a peaceful resolution so soon after a flash point. Some, like associate Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University Daniel Williams, who examines the legal basis for the ECOMIG intervention, concludes that the Gambia conflict-resolution success was an “anomaly,” its small size, unique geography, universally hated leader could offer no real resistance to a unified regional response.
But for me, The Gambia is no anomaly, but indicative of an emerging Africa. Here are the takeaways.
First, democracy begets democracy. The ECOWAS heads of state were all democratically elected. Several of the ECOWAS nations, Liberia, Guinea, Cote d’ Ivoire, Sierra Leone, are still recovering from cross-border conflict and civil wars, and are raising their first generation of children in peacetime. West Africa has paid a steep price for their young constitutional democracies. Jammeh staying in power would have been more than a threat to regional stability, it would have signified a betrayal by each of these presidents to their own constituents.
Second, The Gambia reaffirms the value of the investment in soft power that the U.S., and other bilateral and multilateral donors have made in Africa. The U.S. did not move battle ships offshore in The Gambia, nor dispatch special operation units to protect or evacuate U.S. citizens and foreign nationals from a country exploding in civil conflict. These are actions the U.S. was forced to take in the region, repeatedly, barely a decade earlier and at tremendous cost to the military and U.S. taxpayers.
The crisis was managed by Africans themselves, in part, because we had invested in the long-game — building capacity and strengthening democratic institutions.
In the recent past, across Republican and Democratic administrations, the U.S. has provided assistance to support national electoral commissions, strengthen education and healthcare systems, build civil society institutions, train investigative journalists, fortify regional organizations, insist on performance-based foreign assistance, streamline government procurement processes, stand-up anti-corruption commissions, and encourage people-to-people exchanges. And the Ghanaian, Nigerian and Senegalese forces contributing to ECOMIG received some level of US assistance over the years in the form of logistics expertise, training, engineering support, and through joint exercises with the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM).
Third, The Gambia reaffirms that the greatest export of the United States to the world is still its foundational values of freedom and democracy.
And fourth, and finally, The Gambia example reveals the thirst for participatory democracy in Africa, and the coming-of-age of a population ready to hold their leaders accountable.
Today, former president Jammeh is living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, where President Theodoro Obiang, another entrenched leader, has been in power since 1979, long past his expiration date. But his time will come too. History is marching on.
K. Riva Levinson is President and CEO of KRL International LLC a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016), Silver Medal winner Independent Book Publishers Award, Finalist, Forward Reviews INDIES ‘Book of the Year’ Awards.
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