After over two decades in power, Yahyah Jammeh finally stepped down as president of the Gambia on January 21 2017. The former army lieutenant who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1994 was defeated by Adama Barrow after elections in December 2016. After losing by 43.2% to 39.6% of the vote, the former president conceded defeat on December 2 and congratulated his opponent. The euphoria of the opposition and the Gambian nation was short-lived when a week later, Jammeh withdrew his concession and challenged the election results. This dispute would span for the ensuing weeks and culminate in the inauguration of the opposition leader in neighbouring Senegal, the intervention of Ecowas in the Gambia and Jammeh finally stepping down from power. From this event arises the crucial question: is Africa witnessing the last days of the authoritarian leaders on the continent?
The Republic of the Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa, is a semi-enclave in Senegal with a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, with a population of 2 million people. According to the IMF, Gambia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is at $886 million with an average growth rate of 4% for the past four years. Tourism and agriculture account for about 40% of GDP with the latter being the main sector of the economy with over half of the population relying on crops and livestock as a source of income. Tourism, which was once a steady flow of income for the government, has declined steadily due to the remnant effects of the post-Ebola crisis. Poor government policies combined with weak financial management have resulted in a sharp rise in the national debt burden at an estimated 100% of GDP in 2015. With over 60% of the population living under the poverty line, the country remains one of the poorest in the world as it depends on foreign aid to balance its budget. Gambia ranks 175th out of 185 countries on the Human Development Index, which measures human development according to three indices: life expectancy, education and standard of living.
Since its independence in 1965, Gambia has had only three leaders, Dawda Jawara (24 years), Yahya Jammeh (22 years) and the incumbent Adama Barrow. After seizing power through a bloodless coup d’état in 1994, Jammeh won the presidential election in September 1996 where former politicians and senior government officials were banned from participating. He would go on to win the next three elections. Prior to the 2016 presidential elections, opposition parties struggled to mount a serious challenge to Jammeh leaving him confident of winning his fifth consecutive term.
In July 2016, Ousainou Daroe, the leader of the main opposition party – the United Democratic Party (UDP) – was jailed over illegal protest charges. Consequently Adama Barrow, the former deputy treasurer of the UDP, resigned from his post to run as an independent against Jammeh after having obtained the support of seven opposition parties. General elections were then held on December 1 2016 with a voter turnout of 59% in comparison to 82.55% in 2011. In one of the biggest election upsets in West African history, Adama Barrow won the elections with a four percent lead.
However, a week later Jammeh appeared on state television and withdrew his original concession of defeat due to what he termed as “serious and unacceptable abnormalities” after the electoral commision revised the votes. He then lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court in an attempt to overturn the results. With the Gambia in a constitutional crisis, the leaders of the regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) initiated a diplomatic process that involved various head of states meeting with Jammeh to convince him to adhere to a peaceful transfer of power.
The African Union also supported the efforts of Ecowas by urging the former Gambian president to step down as the union would not recognise him as head of state after the inauguration of Barrow. After five rounds of presidential missions to Banjul failed to convince Jammeh to step down, Ecowas were resolved to uphold the election results by any means necessary. To this end, the regional bloc threatened military action similar to the intervention in Côte d’Ivoire which saw Laurent Gbagbo removed from power after he refused to step down after losing the elections. After the UN Security Council adopted a resolution expressing its full support to the regional bloc and to the newly inaugurated president Barrow, Ecowas mobilised their troops and entered the country.
However, the military operations were halted to provide Jammeh with a last chance to leave peacefully. Two days of negotiations by presidents Alpha Condé of Guinea and Mohammed Oubel Abdel Aziz of Mauritania finally resulted in Jammeh agreeing to go into exile in Equatorial Guinea. At last, Gambians could welcome their newly-elected president back into the country and begin a new era without Yahya Jammeh. So what awaits Mr Barrow and the Gambians in their new endeavour?
Rebuilding the economy, promoting unity among Gambians and reforming the security sector are among the issues that the president would have to address. With regards to the economy, the government would need to work together with the IMF to reduce the government’s debt-to-GDP ratio and also to curb inflation which rose to 7.43% in 2016. Interest payments increased to almost 50% of government revenues in 2016. Addressing the socio-economic inequalities, rapid urbanisation and high level of unemployment by implementing appropriate policy reforms would translate in economic growth and poverty reduction.
This would entail enhancing the capacity and output of productive sectors, diversifying the economy and encouraging local communities and civil society to become active in the development process. In order to address the high unemployment rate, there is a need to improve the business climate in a country that ranks 151st on the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business report. This would necessitate attracting investments by improving regulatory efficiency, revising tariffs and investment restrictions, encouraging private sector job creation and building effective institutions.
Another key aspect on Barrow’s agenda is the reform of the security sector, more specifically the security forces. He intends to restructure the security sector into one that is more democratic, accountable, transparent and efficient. This is in line with Ecowas’s protocol on Democracy and Good Governance that affirms a competent security sector is essential to reducing conflict. Concerning the rule of law, the government will have to deal with the issues of corruption and impunity inherited from the Jammeh administration. Accordingly, there is a need to establish societal and institutional mechanisms that ensure the autonomy and independence of institutions such as the judiciary and civil society organisations.
As a first step towards fostering unity, Barrow’s administration would need to address social issues of human rights violation, deteriorating living conditions and gender violence inherited from the previous regime. There is little doubt that twenty-two years of authoritarian rule have left deep divisions among the Gambian nation. Realising this, the new president plans to convene a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with past abuses. With regards to prosecuting Jammeh, Barrow stated that the government will only act based on the commission’s final report.
Shortly before Jammeh stepped down, the UN and the AU published a joint declaration pledging to protect the latter’s rights as a ‘citizen, party leader and a former head of state’, prevent seizure of assets and properties lawfully belonging to him and to ensure that he can one day return to the Gambia. According to Senegalese foreign minister Mankeur Ndiaye, no Ecowas head of state signed this declaration thus opening the possibility to have Jammeh account for alleged human rights abuses. Barrow has promised to return the Gambia to the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court. Another key long-term challenge facing the new government is the high rate of outmigration. In 2016, Gambia represented the fifth-largest group of asylum seekers to Europe while remittances from overseas accounted for 20% of its GDP in 2014. Meanwhile, around 45 000 people who fled to Senegal over fears of military unrest are in the process of repatriation.
The challenges facing the new president and his government are overwhelming. However, they can be overome with the support of the Gambian people and regional actors. To this end, the UN, AU and Ecowas have pledged to work with Gambia to promote social, cultural and national cohesion. To further succed in this endeavor, Barrow would need to maintain the support of the youth – instrumental in his victory by listening to their grievances and issues. The Gambia, mirroring Burkina Faso in 2014, underscores the importance that the youth play in overthrowing authoritarian leaders through democratic means.
The Gambia presented a situation where a regional bloc (Ecowas) is committed to constitutionalism and intolerant of leaders who refuse to cede power after they have lost a demcractic election. While Ecowas believe the days of African authoritarian leaders are numbered, there is a more important question that emerges. Who will follow Ecowas’s example next?