Thinking Aloud: Learning the Right Lessons from Gambia

Feb. 1, 2017 by Darius 

Two weeks ago, Yahya Jammeh, the man who had ruled the small West African nation of Gambia with an iron fist for the last 22 years, boarded a plane and flew into exile.  Jammeh’s departure and the inauguration of Adama Barrow, the opposition figure who defeated Jammeh in an unexpectedly democratic election, constitute very good news indeed.  However, as is often the case, the relevance of Jammeh’s overthrow outside Gambia depends not so much on what actually happened but on peoples’ perceptions of what happened.  The battle for the narrative of Jammeh’s fall is, unfortunately, being lost.

Ever since Jammeh’s departure, most of the media attention and “lessons learned” (for example, this AlJazeera piece: have focused on the bloodless nature of Jammeh’s exit and the role regional leaders, especially those in ECOWAS, an economic community of West African countries, played in mediating Jammeh’s exit.  It makes for a nice narrative: a club of (mostly) democratic countries (looking at you, Mauritania) come together to demand that their neighbor mend its ways, and, in the face of united regional opposition, the autocrat gives way.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened in Gambia.

The crucial ingredient in Gambia was not the united international condemnation of Jammeh’s attempt to remain in power or even Jammeh being offered generous terms for a retirement outside Gambia (although those were nice.)  Instead, it was, simply, overwhelming military force.  Soon after Jammeh attempted to annul the results of the election in which he was defeated, ECOWAS pledged to intervene militarily, if necessary, to ensure Jammeh left power according to Gambian law.  Somewhat surprisingly, ECOWAS was serious: as the last day of Jammeh’s term neared, Senegalese and Nigerian troops, under the banners of ECOWAS, massed on Gambia’s borders and, as Barrow was inaugurated in the Gambian embassy in Senegal, entered Gambia.

Given the small size of Gambia’s military, the ECOWAS force was overwhelming, and the head of Gambia’s military announced he would not order his troops to fight ECOWAS.  It was only after ECOWAS troops were in Gambia that regional leaders arrived in the capital for the negotiations that ultimately resulted in Jammeh going peacefully into exile.  In short, Jammeh had a very real choice: accept a nice retirement package somewhere far away or have his door kicked down by Senegalese soldiers.  The only reason diplomacy succeeded was because for Jammeh, the alternative was both far worse and extremely imminent.

Why does getting the narrative right matter?  Because Jammeh is, obviously, far from the only dictator.  And the next time the international community is faced with a situation similar to the one we saw in Gambia, it’s vital that we don’t assume that regional mediation will succeed in easing a dictator out of power “because it worked in Gambia.”  It won’t.  And this isn’t just idle speculation on my part.  In the last few years, we’ve seen time and again that recalcitrant dictators are willing to absorb regional diplomatic pressure and cling to power regardless through violence.  For example, between March and September 2011, the prime minister and foreign minister of Turkey made no fewer than 24 official visits to Syria, first to convince Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to enact reforms and then to convince him to leave power.  Assad rebuffed them, and Turkey had no immediate alternative.  Nearly six years later, Assad is still in power, half a million people are dead, and 11 million more have fled their homes.

The case of Burundi is even more relevant in comparison to Gambia.  In 2015, Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a constitutionally prohibited third term.  Protests erupted against his rule and were violently repressed, sending refugees fleeing into neighboring countries.  Ministers from countries in the East African Community, the regional equivalent of ECOWAS, arrived in Burundi’s capital to negotiate Nkurunziza out of power, and the African Union even approved a military intervention if the crisis did not end.  But it was a bluff, and Nkurunziza called it: the troops never materialized.  The diplomats eventually went home, and Nkurunziza remains in power—at the cost of hundreds of dead Burundians.

It’s definitely nice that no shots were fired in Jammeh’s removal.  But, ironically, it was only the threat of a whole lot of shots being fired (at Jammeh) that led him to accept a deal to leave power and go into exile.

The most important lesson we should learn from Gambia’s experience is simple: diplomatic efforts make the international community feel better about itself, but diplomatic efforts backed up by genuine coercive force achieve real results.

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