The Gambia’s Dictator Increases Pressure on Africa’s Regional Institutions

President Yahya Jammeh holds his last public rally before election day. Banjul, The Gambia, November 29, 2016. (Jerome Delay/Associated Press)

In a major surprise on the African continent, Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh, who has held unlimited power for 22 years, conceded defeat to real estate magnate Adama Barrow after national elections on December 2. A week later, however, Jammeh changed his mind and annulled the results. Reports indicate he now prefers to cling to power in an openly illegitimate way, rather than face possible trial for his crimes while in power, either in his country or through International Criminal Court indictment.

The Gambia, a small sliver of land adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by Senegal, has been largely ignored by the African Union and Economic Community of West African States in recent years, as these organizations focused on responding to other issues including the Islamic insurgency in Mali and the spread of Ebola through Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

This has allowed Jammeh to rule with an iron fist, either killing his adversaries, putting them in prison, or forcing them to leave the country. In recent years he has used his Islamic faith to attract public support for his protracted tenure in power. In the run-up to the election, Jammeh arrested major opposition leader Ousainou Darboe and 18 supporters, who were sentenced to three years in prison for a pro-democracy protest after the death in detention of another opposition leader, Solo Sandeng.

Jammeh was apparently taken by surprise upon losing the election. There had been no advance polling of voter sentiment and most of those who opposed him had kept their counsel to themselves, for fear of being arrested or having the election cancelled. The vote proceeded on schedule despite numerous threats, including arrests and intimidation of political opponents, the barring of international observers, and internet connections and international phone calls being cut off on the eve of the election.

Barrow mainly attracted support among youth and women and secured 45.5% of the vote, compared to 36.7% for Jammeh, with the balance going to a third candidate. Jammeh’s preliminary decision to accept the election results is attributed to advice from his security advisers that doing otherwise would have unleashed large scale protests and perhaps violence.

His reversal now means ECOWAS in particular faces another difficult decision—whether to turn a blind eye or seek to persuade Jammeh to reverse course again and accept the results. Jammeh’s choice will have major consequences beyond the future of democracy in The Gambia. Barrow had announced his intention to release a large number of political prisoners and to reverse Jammeh’s recent decision to withdraw from the ICC. Both these steps, if implemented, would have been significant. The ICC decision came quickly after announcements by South Africa and Burundi of their intention to also withdraw.

The Gambia’s rejection of democracy stands in contrast to the just completed election in Ghana, where a smooth transfer of power is underway from the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) to the newly elected New Patriotic Party. The NDC’s Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo won 53.8% of the vote compared to 44.4% from closest contender and current President John Dramani Mahama.

Ghana has had peaceful transfers of power ever since Jerry Rawlings (who first organized a coup in 1981) stepped down after two terms in 2000 and was followed by John Kufour, John Atta Mills, and Mahama, who quickly accepted the latest results. The Ghanaian outcome underscores the importance of African states developing strong institutions that can guard against political strongmen clinging to power.

It would be premature to fit these two elections into a single narrative of political trends in West Africa. The region, and the African continent in general, remains a mix of progress and stagnation as far as democratic change and economic and social development is concerned. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power through a rare peaceful transfer of power, is slowly building legitimacy through progress against Boko Haram, obtaining the release of a number of the girls abducted two years ago and dealing with the insurrection in the Niger Delta. Corruption, however, remains a largely unresolved issue, as does economic turmoil linked to the global commodities downturn. In Cote d’Ivoire, the United Nations is closing its peacekeeping operation, believing the country has made a successful transition to relative stability after a protracted ethic-based civil war. But the upcoming 2020 election could raise new security threats and other challenges.

Despite the initial signs of change, Jammeh for now remains a member of the club of lifetime or near lifetime African dictators. These include President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe’s aging Robert Mugabe, Chad’s Idriss Deby, and Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea, where no election has been held since the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Potential new members of this club can also be found in Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Joseph Kabila, and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. Whatever the national or regional achievements of these leaders, their determination to stay in office indefinitely reflects on the inability of the African Union and the continent’s regional economic communities to facilitate peaceful transfers of power. It ultimately weakens Africa’s declared commitment to good governance and democracy.