We should not fetishize what took place in The Gambia. Democracy didn’t win, but rather a man just got away with murder, says Azad Essa.
There was dancing in the streets when Yahya Jammeh, the former president of The Gambia, boarded a plane and headed to Equatorial Guinea.
The 51-year-old, who ruled The Gambia for more than 22 years, finally stepped aside after losing December’s election to Adama Barrow.
The nation breathed a sigh of relief.
A bloody encounter involving foreign troops and The Gambia’s army was averted and ‘democracy had triumphed’.
Long regarded as a barb in west Africa’s fleshy history of mal-governance and dictatorship, The Gambia could now transition into a new era.
António Guterres, the new Secretary General of the UN and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the outgoing head of the AU Commission, tweeted their congratulations. There was and will be talk of a precedent set for dictators and presidents on the continent; the Robert Mugabes, Yoweri Musevenis of the world, and those of their ilk, should take notice that their time is over.
This however is far-fetched, even nonsensical.
Less than two years ago, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza refused to accept that a third term was impermissible by the country’s constitution. Was he forced out? He is still there the last time I checked. Instead, a thousand people have died, hundreds of thousands of others forced out of their homes and forced to live in refugee camps in Tanzania and elsewhere as the political crisis deepened.
In an example closer to home, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe lost elections against Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008, but refused to vacate the top seat. Instead, he managed to secure a power-sharing deal with Tsvangirai.
Both Nkurunziza in 2015 and Mugabe in 2008 were able to stay because the respective regional bodies, like Southern African Development Community (SADC) and East African Community (EAC), and the African Union (AU) allowed them to do so.
Jammeh only left because the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) refused to let him stay. Unlike Nkurunziza and Mugabe, Jammeh had few friends left in the region, and on the continent and therefore faced either all out war or an escape into the night.
The last time someone had a similar choice, it was the Ivory Coast’s former president Laurent Gbagbo. He refused to leave and is now facing charges of ‘crimes against humanity’ at The Hague.
At the time, the French were strongly behind the change.
We can argue over the merits of intervention, but the example of The Gambia demonstrates once more that power on the continent still does not rest in the people. The decision to change regimes or shift power is still the purview of outside interests no matter the people’s choice. It is in the hand of cliques. Whereas ECOWAS is fast becoming a club of former opposition leaders (most prominently Senegal’s Macky Sall and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari), SADC and EAC are still made up of liberation leaders or parties.
There are other examples, like Mohamed Morsi, forced out of power in July 2013 by the Egyptian military, in a move accepted by the international community despite it being a coup. There is also the intervention in Libya that started off as “protecting civilians” to old-fashioned regime change and the murder of Muammar Gaddafi.
We should not fetishize what took place in The Gambia. For one, Jammeh lost an election that took place under abysmal conditions. Opposition parties faced censure and media were hounded, intimidated, the internet cut.
Then, after initially accepting defeat, Jammeh changed his mind when the president-elect Barrow, in a poorly executed show of retribution, announced he would pursue charges against Jammeh at the International Criminal Court.
And what was to come was not straightforward. It took five rounds of ECOWAS-led negotiations. It took cabinet resignations and the departure of the vice-president to convince him to leave. And when Jammeh’s army chief said he would not fight ECOWAS, he had to go. The new president was sworn in at The Gambian embassy in neighbouring Senegal. It was this final act of delegitimation that broke him. And he was gone.
In so doing, he escaped with loot reportedly worth millions of dollars and more importantly, any accountability for more than two decades of crimes against civilians, journalists and politicians. In its place, a truth and reconciliation commission has been promised.
Is there a sliver of hope from the events in The Gambia? Certainly.
A 59 percent voter turnout speaks volumes and the popular candidate will lead. But when Jammeh came to power in 1994, he too came in with the promise of a better story. His take-over, despite it being a coup at the time, was touted, too, as “bloodless”. But, what was to come, is all too known.
Lest we forget that democracy didn’t win in The Gambia, but rather a man just got away with murder.* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.