The troubled transition in The Gambia was resolved peacefully. No gunfire was shot, no drop of blood spilt.
Surely, no single factor or line of story fully accounts for this remarkable development. It represented an exemplary triumph of the work of African led diplomacy. As such, it is now sure to become Gambia’s recipe for peaceful resolution of crises of transition elsewhere on the continent.
The descent to a preventable crisis of exit
The political turmoil in the Gambia that forced some 50,000 Gambians into neighboring countries, as I argued previously, was a crisis of exit arising from what I call ‘the curse of electoral defeat of an authoritarian’ – involving questions of clarifying the fate of the outgoing president (terms of exit) when and after handing over power and the handling of the politics of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.
The crisis ensued when on 9 December 2016 Jammeh, rescinding his earlier concession of defeat, announced his rejection of the election results. Although Jammeh blamed problems relating to the election process, it was trends of politics of anger, not uncharacteristic of post-authoritarian transitions, which put his future into question that pushed him to make a face about on his acceptance of the election results.
Indications were that, Jammeh was resigning into retirement. In preparation for soft landing and following on acceptance of his electoral defeat, on 5 December Jammeh’s government released 19 political prisoners, including Ousainou Darboe, the leader of Barrow’s United Democratic Party (UDP), followed by 12 others on 7 December.
Instead of seizing Jammeh’s acceptance of the outcome of the election to negotiate an exit strategy ensuring peaceful transfer of power, as Rwanda’s newspaper New Times’ commentator Lonzen Rugira summed it, the message coming from some in the opposition involved ‘there would be no immunity; they’d return to the ICC; they’d seize Jammeh’s assets and prevent him from traveling abroad; and they’d prosecute him in less than a year and possibly within the next three months because they wanted to “move fast.”’
Enter the ECOWAS led coercive diplomatic efforts
Despite his wishes to the contrary, Jammeh’s act attracted swift regional response that culminated in the peaceful resolution of the crisis. Central to the success of the diplomatic efforts were its three important features.
The first was regional leadership. ECOWAS took the lead both in setting the agenda and launching the diplomatic process. Rather than mediating between Jammeh and the president elect, the initiative of ECOWAS focused on the agenda of enforcing the outcome of the 1 December election. The subject of the diplomatic effort was thus rightly about negotiating an exit framework that ensures Jammeh’s departure and the ascent of the president elect to power.
The other feature of the ECOWAS led diplomatic process was the formation of a united front between regional and international actors. The agenda of ECOWAS on Jammeh’s departure received firm support from the continental body the African Union (AU), which expressing full support to ECOWAS warned Jammeh of ‘serious consequences’ and the UN as well as other international actors including the European Union and major powers like the US.
Third, the diplomatic effort around the agenda of Jammeh’s departure was backed by a credible threat of use of force. Apart from its 17 December summit decision to ‘undertake all necessary action’, a euphemism for use of force, ECOWAS member states mobilized their troops into The Gambia upon the expiry of a 19 January deadline they set for jammeh to leave power.
Collapsing of Jammeh’s regime from inside
As much as the caution that ECOWAS exercised (for exhausting diplomatic efforts that involved five rounds of presidential missions to Banjul mobilizing a total number of six African presidents), while showing firm posture, the crumbling of Jammeh’s regime and his alienation by his own army was a catalyst in bringing Jammeh into accepting the terms of his departure.
The string of cabinet resignations followed by the departure of longtime vice president Isatou Njie-Saidy forced Jammeh to dissolve his cabinet entirely. Despite declaration of state of emergency and parliamentary extension of his term of office for three months, the military chief announced that he had no plan to fight the ECOWAS troops marching into the Gambia.
Pulling the rug of power from Jammeh’s feet
Instead of its initial threat of ensuring the inauguration of Mr Barrow in the Gambia, ECOWAS opted for an extraordinary choice for the swearing in of the president elect Adama Barrow in the Embassy of the Gambia in Senegal’s capital, Dakar. Despite Jammeh’s claim to power with a parliamentary decision extending his power for a further period of three months, in an act that pulled the rug of power from Jammeh’s feet the president elect was sworn in as Gambia’s new president on 19 January.
This act sealed Jammeh’s political demise, paving the way for the AU and others to withdraw their recognition of Jammeh and welcom Mr Barrow as the legitimate president of The Gambia.
The most critical political act
No doubt the combination of all of the foregoing factors contributed in ending the crisis. Yet, the most critical political act for the crisis to be resolved peacefully was the eventual successful negotiation of Jammeh’s exit. Following the last rounds of diplomatic efforts involving Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Guinea’s Alpha Conde, Aziz aptly summed the essence of the agreement on the exit of Jammeh saying ‘We have reached an agreement that saves the Gambia, guarantees peace, and assures security, dignity and honor for the outgoing president’.
The clear lesson from the crisis in The Gambia is that for a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy to be successful a free and fair election should be accompanied by a negotiated agreement on exit that encourages the authoritarian ruler into retirement and allows the country to move forward with an inclusive transition.
Lessons for diplomatic response for crises of transitions of power
From the perspective of diplomatic engagement, the successful resolution of the crisis shows the importance of various factors including a) regional agreement around a single agenda of the diplomatic effort, b) unity of regional actors and cohesive regional leadership that sticks around the same agenda c) willingness of the region to enforce such agenda and d) mobilizing and securing firm continental and international support and engagement based on and around the agenda set.
Obviously, it would be difficult to replicate the model of diplomacy employed in the Gambia in another situation. The fact that Gambia is a small country with one of the smallest and weakest military force has arguably made an easy case to handle with a threat of credible military action.
Although the model may not be and should not be replicated as is for other cases, it still offers a useful template that can be adapted as appropriate and used for other cases. Accordingly, in cases where a regime is backed by a relatively strong army and its components remain firmly together, this model needs to be complemented by such other measures as applied in Cote d’Ivoire after the November 2010 elections including suspension of membership, economic sanctions etc before using the threat of force.