Gambia may be the smallest country in mainland Africa, but it has received a big spotlight recently after a historic presidential election and transfer of power. After suffering under the harsh, authoritarian rule of Yahya Jammeh for 23 years, Gambians ousted him in an open election in December 2016. Winning opposition leader Adama Barrow took office as president last week. Many are hoping what happened in Gambia is a signal that the days of other long-ruling African dictators could be numbered.
The story is remarkable. Yahya Jammeh took power in a 1994 coup in the tiny West African nation of Gambia, a small sliver of land bordering the Gambia River that is completely surrounded by Senegal (with a small outlet to the Atlantic ocean).
Throughout his tyrannical reign, he jailed journalists and political opponents and led a series of witch hunts—he thought that some critical of his regime were actual witches. Jammeh inspired such fear that thousands fled to neighboring countries, and some even thought he was monitoring their communications from abroad. Concerned for their safety, many citizens would not even speak of Jammeh in public, and a Gambian newspaper even reported he hid poisonous gas pellets in the country’s state house before leaving. (However after a comprehensive search, none were found.)
Leading up to the December 2016 election, Gambia’s multiple opposition parties decided enough was enough. They pooled resources and unified behind one candidate, Adama Barrow. As he was called during the campaign, “no drama Adama” promised democratic reforms and an end to Jammeh’s tyranny. In a shocking result, Barrow actually won. Jammeh agreed to peacefully step down, and Gambians celebrated the dawn of a new era.
Except a few days later, Jammeh changed his mind. He claimed the election results fraudulent and threatened to use the army to maintain his hold on power. Fearing a violent reprisal, many Gambians fled the country. Barrow left for Senegal, and was sworn in as president in exile.
The situation seemed bleak. Then, in another unexpected turn of events, the regional trading bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervened, sending in negotiators and a military force to ensure the transition of power took place.
In a surprise equal to that of the election result, it worked: without any violence, Jammeh accepted defeat and fled to Equatorial Guinea (along with a cargo plane filled with luxury cars and other results of his fleecing of Gambia’s economy). The ECOWAS troops did not face any notable resistance, but are expected to remain for a few months to ensure the transition remains peaceful. On January 26, Barrow returned to Gambia—as did many of his countrymen who had fled post-election—to a hero’s welcome.
ECOWAS has been hailed for its role in convincing Jammeh to relent, and peacefully step down. The group took action from the get-go, establishing a negotiating team immediately after the election in December. This team featured several presidents of countries in the region, including two who had directly experienced violent political change and military intervention: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (ECOWAS Chairwoman) of Liberia, and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone. Their influence proved critical. Paulin Maurice Toupane, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Senegal, points out:
“It helped very much that those regional actors presented a united front and a common understanding of the situation—that Barrow was the victor and Jammeh must go. It meant they could speak as one voice and also helped them to earn the support of international bodies like the UN and [African Union] as well.“
Outside of Gambia, many others took notice in the hopes that what happened there could be repeated in other nearby dictatorships (7 of 10 longest-serving rulers are in Africa). The hashtag #LessonsFromGambia took hold across the continent, with Twitter posts like “Time is up for dictators in Africa #LessonsfromGambia” and “If regional blocks in #Africa take the same lead as #ECOWAS did in #Gambia, dictatorships will become a thing of the past.”
But, of course, it’s not that simple. Just because a peaceful transition took place in Gambia doesn’t mean the same principles would work elsewhere. For one, Jammeh was considered a delusional outsider with few political allies. Also the ECOWAS military force outnumbered Gambia’s army 7 to 1, a situation unlikely to occur in other areas. And Barrow faces many challenges in rebuilding the economy and fulfilling the people’s trust.
Nevertheless the success in Gambia should not be understated. After decades of tyranny, a democracy seems to be taking root. Whether this is the start of a movement that will topple other dictators remains to be seen. But if it happened once, there is good reason for hope.