Promise and peril in Africa’s newest democracy

While the victory for democracy in the Gambia is important and should be celebrated, the way it came about should give us some pause.

Former president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh. Image credit: IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin

The Gambia, Africa’s smallest country, which straddles the river of the same name and has a population of just under 2 million, is off the radar of the international news media at the best of times. However, a recent peaceful transition of power brought some notices in the international news sections of the New York Times and other major papers.

In terms of the British press, it helped that the new president Adama Barrow has ties to the UK, having once worked as a security guard at an Argos store in north London.  The fact that he was also a real estate developer in his native country, like a certain newly installed American president, didn’t make a difference in terms of U.S. non-coverage of the story..

The Gambia had been on eggshells since December 9th, when long time President, Yahya Jammeh reversed himself after first accepting the victory of his opponents called the Coalition (it’s an alliance of seven parties, Barrow ran as an Independent) on the 1st of that month.

Although he was roundly condemned for his defiance by the UN, the African Union and regional grouping ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), multiple reports claimed the former President had become concerned when opposition figures began loudly proclaiming that he and his subordinates would be made to pay for the (many) excesses of his 22 year rule.

Jammeh, once considered an ally of Western interests, is part of a dying breed of African leaders: the military strongman. It’s telling that he found refuge (along with almost $12 million dollars of the cash strapped country’s funds) in Equatorial Guinea, led by another such dinosaur, the world’s longest serving president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

In terms of civil liberties and freedom of the press, it can’t be denied that Jammeh was one of the worst leaders in Africa. Like others of his ilk, he was also prone to hyperbole, often claiming to have mystical powers.

The country is dwarfed by its more powerful neighbors, especially Senegal, which completely surrounds it on land and to which it was joined in a confederation from 1982-1989. Even if it were much larger, due to the fact it’s in Africa, the Gambia would likely be of little interest to most media. After all, almost all the mainstream news in the West coming out of sub-Saharan Africa plays into the War on Terror narrative, thus the occasional piece about Nigeria’s Boko Haram or Al Shabaab in Somalia.

This is a shame because a country like the Gambia, a former British colony, for all its problems with bad leadership and grinding poverty, tells a different story from the prevailing one of a religious, civilizational war engulfing not only poor countries but spreading to Europe through refugee flows.

The Gambia is 90% Muslim and about 8% Christian, yet there is little sectarian strife. While most Gambians are Sunni Muslim adherents to the Malicki school of Islam popular in west Africa (the same version that ruled most of the Iberian peninsula before the Reconquista), it’s often mixed with mystical traditions from various Sufi schools of thought and even elements of earlier African animist traditions.

Salafism, the reactionary ideology of groups like Al Qaeda, is not one of the four major schools of Sunnism. The closest association is with Saudi Arabia’s Wahhbism, itself an offshoot of the more established, but undeniably austere, Hanbali school. Such a vision of the world, that the 7th century civilization led by Muhammad and his immediate successors was perfect and should be recreated in the present day doesn’t have widespread appeal to people worried about feeding their families and educating their children.

This is probably especially true in a country like the Gambia, one of the poorest countries in the world ranked 165th out of 187 countries in the 2013 United Nation’s human development index. Although the country is bisected by the River Gambia only about half of the land is arable, meaning that the new agriculture minister’s plans to turn the country from subsistence farming  to an export oriented economy is likely a pipe dream destined to disappoint many of those who support the new government.

In looking at this we can see what is perhaps one of the most pernicious effects of the neo-liberal model of development. Countries like nearby Liberia, which has trouble feeding its citizens, is turning its available farmland into large scale plantations producing palm oil and other commodities for global markets, enriching local and international elites at the expense of small farmers.

This is obviously not confined to Africa and will become more of a problem if global warming trends intensify as they are expected to in coming years.

A dangerous rift

While the victory of Adama Barrow has been celebrated for obvious reasons, it does come with its own set of dangers.

The first was that Jemmah received 39.6% of the vote compared to Barrows’ 43.3%, close enough that we will have to wait and see how deep the former president’s support is in the coming months. Also, after 22 years there are many people in both the civil service and the military who probably feel some loyalty to the former regime and it will be important for the new government to reach out to these people, at least those not implicated in the crimes of the previous regime.

As proof of these dangers, police in the town of Kafenda, known as a base of support for the former President, arrested 51 of his supporters on the 19th of February.

As Seedy Njie, a spokesman for the former president’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC)  told Reuters in regards to those arrested, “They were provoked by the supporters of the coalition who… were calling Jammeh all sorts of names and saying he was a killer. Then a quarrel ensued.”

On the other side, as the writer and editor Musa Saidykhan laid out in a passionate editorial for the Gambian web-site Kairo News about the inauguration, this is a fault line that isn’t going to go away anytime soon, “…as I watched the various dignitaries who who graced this auspicious occasion, I saw former regime officials given special frontline seats together with foreign dignitaries. The attendance of former regime officials was a good move toward national reconciliation but I think this must not be done at the expense of victims of 22 years of military dictatorship.”

It will likely be difficult for people like Ousainou Darboe, the new foreign minister, jailed multiple times, to reconcile with security services who remain in place. It’s nonetheless important to see a measure of justice for those who suffered and in some cases, died, for their opposition to the previous government. Towards this end, a Truth and Reconciliation Committee planned by the new government will be an important first step.

The problem of powerful neighbors

One aspect of the short lived crisis that should probably disturb those with an interest in Africa was the intervention of Senegal and Nigeria, much larger and more powerful countries, in the Gambia’s internal affairs through ECOWAS, with threats of intervention if Jammeh tried to remain in power.

While the removal of the ex-President was by any measure a good thing, the tendency towards military intervention, whether through the African Union or other regional groupings who often seem to be working in the interests of Western powers, creates dangerous precedents.

As one of the most interesting English speaking writers on African issues, Thomas Mountain, who resides in Eritrea, made clear in a recent article, “To this day the Senegalese Commandos provide personal protection for the newly installed President, having been sworn in while residing in Senegal.”

At the very least the new president likely feels a great deal of gratitude to these powers and may support them in further interventions as ECOWAS gets used to flexing its muscles.

To take another example from the other side of the continent that has had much worse consequences, we need only look at the intervention of Ethiopia and Uganda, widely viewed as Christian powers and democratic more in name than in reality, as part of the African Union mission in Somalia has the opposite effect of what was intended: ratcheting up violence and chaos rather than ending it and leading to further civilian casualties as the result of terrorist attacks in both countries.

This is the Pandora’s Box opened by the United States and the UK in their illegal intervention in Iraq over a decade ago. It will always be weaker states who are threatened in this way and its becoming increasingly clear that they can’t rely on international law for protection.

This creates a perverse incentive for some to try build up their own military strength, something that major arms dealers in the West, in Russia and in China will likely be more than happy to accommodate while always ensuring that they and their regional partners retain a qualitative edge.

While diplomacy can often seem agonizingly slow, especially in a crisis, its waning influence in favor of force, especially in the world’s hot spots, is a clear and present danger to international norms and laws slowly crafted in the wake of the last century’s brutal, mechanized wars.

While the victory for democracy in the Gambia is important and should be celebrated, the way it came about should give us some pause.


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