African nations are on the verge of taking an extraordinary step to rescue democracy in a country where its fate is hanging in the balance. The West African regional bloc, known as ECOWAS, is resolutely trying to persuade Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to step down after losing a national election. If Jammeh refuses, the consequences could be serious. Regional leaders have even authorized a military force to intervene in defense of the clearly expressed will of Gambia’s voters.
Africa has never seen anything like it. The African Union, which has been notoriously hesitant to criticize its own members on human rights issues, has stood firmly behind ECOWAS. So too have the U.N. Security Council, the United States, the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. All are making the same demand: Jammeh must vacate the office of the president before Jan. 19, when his term comes to an end.
The rest of the world has typically paid little attention to Gambia, a small, isolated country in West Africa. That changed on Dec. 1, 2016, when its people summoned the courage to vote Jammeh out of office. It was a rare victory for long-suffering Gambians, who not only demonstrated their disdain for his brutal regime but also sent a powerful signal of hope to the continent’s other aspiring democracies. Unfortunately for his country, though, Jammeh is refusing to go quietly — prompting anger not only at home but also elsewhere in Africa.
A group of three regional leaders, including Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ghana’s former president John Mahama, who conceded defeat in his own country’s elections last month, traveled to Banjul, Gambia, today to try persuade Jammeh to give up. It was the group’s second trip in the past month, and initial reports suggest they are having just as little success as they did before. “Only God knows” if Jammeh will go, said a clearly exasperated Buhari. Nigeria’s parliament, meanwhile, has voted to offer Jammeh asylum should he agree to leave.
African governments have intervened militarily in the affairs of other states on the continent before, mainly to defend existing governments against rebels or Islamist insurgencies. If ECOWAS does indeed end up dispatching troops to defend the results of the Gambian election, however, that will be something of a novelty.
In a sad twist of fate, it was Jammeh himself who at first stirred hopes for a peaceful and democratic transition of power. Shortly after Gambia’s electoral commission announced the result, which showed him losing to opposition candidate Adama Barrow by a 5 percent margin, Jammeh conceded defeat on national television, sending Gambians into a state of collective euphoria. They took to the streets, transforming Banjul into the region’s biggest block party. Even members of the military, often regarded as pillars of Jammeh’s regime, were shown joining in the celebration. Officials also freed a number of high-profile political prisoners, including Ousainou Darboe, the leader of Gambia’s largest opposition movement.
What happened next was unfortunate, if not entirely surprising. Exactly one week after conceding defeat, Jammeh reversed course. On Dec. 9, he announced on state-run television that he had found “serious and unacceptable abnormalities” with the election results. He chose to focus on the fact that every single Gambian who was eligible to vote had not actually done so. Yet Gambian law does not mandate compulsory voting. In Jammeh’s 22 years of dictatorship, the country has never even come close to achieving a 100 percent election turnout — despite the president’s best efforts to emulate North Korea.
In his brazen effort to cling to power since being defeated at the ballot box, Jammeh has tried to bring back the familiar climate of fear by restoring old methods of control. His thugs have chased the election commissioner out of the country and scrubbed the election results from the commission’s website. His government has also shut down several media outlets and arrested activists affiliated with the #GambiaHasDecided campaign.
Yet Jammeh’s calculated resort to intimidation has seemingly had the opposite effect. Gambia is currently witnessing a surge of dissent never before witnessed in its history. A range of professional organizations — representing lawyers, university lecturers, journalists and doctors, among others — have demanded that Jammeh step down and respect the country’s constitution. Gambian diplomats from around the world have also called on Jammeh to acknowledge the election results and peacefully hand over power. (Among them is Gambia’s ambassador to the United States, who has since been recalled and now fears for his life should he return home.) There have also been major defections within Jammeh’s government, including longtime ally Sheriff Bojang, who long served as the country’s propagandist-in-chief.
Jammeh is also taking his election challenge to court. But there’s a problem: The country’s Supreme Court has a shortage of judges, many of them having left or been fired by Jammeh in recent years. So now he’s now appointing justices to hear his own case, not a single one of whom is actually Gambian. It’s another bizarre twist for a man who routinely decries “outside interference” and “foreign meddling” in the country’s affairs.
This is surely a moment of reckoning for African leaders. Will they stand by as a brutal and corrupt tyrant, who has ruled for more than two decades with total impunity, attempts to hijack his country’s budding democracy? Or will they push back and finally live up to their own high-minded rhetoric?
The potential consequences of allowing Yahya Jammeh to cling to power in Gambia in defiance of his country’s own constitution, and the will of the Gambian people, are severe. Giving him a pass would show other would-be autocrats that they can steal an election and dash the aspirations of an entire population without consequence. If these anti-democratic tendencies are left to fester, they will encourage instability, potential bloodshed and the violation of human rights elsewhere on the continent.
Indeed, what is happening in Gambia today is not just about the future of this tiny country. It directly concerns the future of democracy in the region and beyond.
Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit group that supports pro-reform leaders in Africa.