Westen K Shilaho
The Star, Friday 3 February 2017
Gambia’s autocrat, Yahya Jammeh, in power for 22 years, was eventually forced out in January 2017 by the resolute and no-nonsense Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The regional body insisted that Jammeh must relinquish power following his defeat in elections.
Initially, Jammeh conceded defeat and even congratulated Adama Barrow, the presidential winner. However, he somersaulted and rejected the results of the December 2016 polls, spuriously citing irregularities. He plunged his tiny country of 2 million people into a political crisis.
Before Jammeh, Malawi’s Joyce Banda had ludicrously accused the opposition of rigging following her defeat in 2014. The recent elections in Ghana, and Nigeria in which incumbents lost after only one term in office, ought to be the norm in Africa. No incumbent has a right to have a sense of entitlement to two terms. His or her re-election must be predicated on the free will of the voters.
It is worth noting that, in 2016, Jammeh was one of two African strong men that expressed a willingness to join South Africa in withdrawing from the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The other was Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, who refused to step down following the end of his two-term tenure in 2015, and instead insisted on running for an unconstitutional third term against strong protests from a cross-section of Burundians. He crushed protests that ensued through the use of security forces and youth militia, held elections in a highly polarised polity, and prevailed.
Jammeh and Nkurunziza have reason to be scared of the ICC, given their appalling human rights records. Protests ensued in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that security forces violently suppressed after Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his two-term tenure in December 2016.
In neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville, the long-serving ruler, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, violently extended over three decades in power following controversial third-term elections in 2016. The same year, Gabon’s Ali Bongo was re-elected controversially and extended the five-decade Bongo dynasty.
Yoweri Museveni of Uganda has exploited control of the state to extend his stay in power. Following the removal of term limits, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is keen to replicate the third term syndrome in August elections. Jammeh’s recalcitrance was therefore not aberrant.
Jammeh’s rule was marred by atrocities such as forced disappearances, detention without trial, extra-judicial executions, the incarceration and murder of opposition politicians, torture, and arbitrary arrests. Basic rights such as freedom of assembly, association, speech, and freedom to life were luxuries under his rule.
Jammeh’s crackdown on the opposition and the press in the run-up to the elections compelled his opponents to rally behind the hitherto little-known property developer Adama Barrow. Credit must be given to the chair of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Alieu Mommar Njai, and his team for conducting credible elections. They steadfastly resisted intimidation by Jammeh.
Previously, Nigeria’s Attahiru Jega, the former head of the electoral body in that country, and his team distinguished themselves for their stellar performance in electoral management. These two and other examples from Ghana and elsewhere underscore the role of electoral bodies in ensuring credible elections in Africa.
Jammeh’s autocracy and his temerity in rejecting the verdict of the Gambian people, as expressed through the ballot, is the reason why Africa is likely to remain the ICC’s favourite customer for years to come, flawed as the court may be. The ICC’s most unstinting critics in Africa are rulers and their allies inspired by a sense of self-preservation, keen to subvert the rule of law, preside over institutional atrophy, trample on human rights, and commit egregious atrocities. But they are quick to plead victimhood, and appropriate pan-Africanism for self-serving ends.
The prompt response by ECOWAS in the Gambia crisis must be hailed. It shows that Africa can resolve its disputes as long as there is political will. Fundamentally, this incident unequivocally sends a message that there is no room for an African ruler that takes voters for a ride by organising elections that he is not prepared to lose.
ECOWAS is Africa’s foremost proactive regional body, and has a distinguished track record in the restoration of political stability in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau, and intolerance to electoral chicanery in Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo. Combining the dexterity of diplomacy and the big stick of military intervention, ECOWAS forced Jammeh to step down. Gambia’s autocrat had to accept surrendering peacefully or attracting the military wrath of ECOWAS. Perhaps African rulers hell-bent on perpetuating impunity will now think twice.
The African Union’s other affiliates have often left conflicts to fester through protracted negotiations that result in cynical ‘power-sharing’ deals among avaricious political groupings that amount to nothing but Band-Aids, failing to address structural issues that precipitated the conflicts in the first place. These power-sharing agreements, of which the emblematic ones were Kenya’s and Zimbabwe’s in 2008 and 2009 respectively, simply postpone the inevitable crises. They give reprieve to those that disenfranchise the citizenry through electoral fraud, enabling errant politicians to entrench themselves further in power. The corollary is that such leaders cannot countenance state restructure for fear of losing power: a hard-line stance that is likely to reignite conflict at a later stage.
Of greater concern is that subregional bodies such as the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have within their ranks rulers of dubious democratic credentials who lack the requisite moral gravitas to persuade their errant colleagues to respect the will of the citizens. The AU was uncharacteristically vocal during the Gambian impasse, again raising questions of inconsistency, as it was quiet in Zimbabwe and Gabon, to name but two cases. Gambia is a small country and may be geopolitically insignificant, but Jammeh’s ouster is a beacon of hope for democratisation efforts in Africa.