A Pariah State in West Africa

Jeff Smith
Founding Director, Vanguard Africa

After more than two decades in power, Gambian President Yahya Jammeh lost the December election to his opponent, Adama Barrow. However, Jammeh now says he does not accept the election results. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) approved a “standby force” to be deployed to The Gambia, with the threat of a full military intervention if Jammeh doesn’t step down by January 19, Barrow’s planned inauguration day (although ECOWAS has recently voiced its commitment to a peaceful mediation process). The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Jeffrey Smith, Founding Director of Vanguard Africa, about these latest developments. Vanguard Africa is a nonprofit organization that worked extensively on the recent Gambian election.

The Cipher Brief: It’s not surprising that an African leader, who has been in power for more than two decades like Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, wants to retain control. It is somewhat surprising that Jammeh conceded defeat, only to later announce he will not step down. Why did he do this?

Jeffrey Smith: It is very clear, and not altogether surprising, that Yahya Jammeh is abiding by the old dictator’s maxim: Hang on for as long as you can, and take the country down with you if need be. For over two decades, the Jammeh regime bore all the primary hallmarks of dictatorship, and he is intent to maintain that image and trajectory until the very end.

There are several theories that have been floated in an attempt to explain his sudden reversal to not accept defeat at the ballot box.  One of them is that Jammeh was confronted with the very real possibility of being prosecuted for the myriad crimes and human rights abuses he has committed since seizing power in 1994. While I think there is some truth in that assessment, we must also remember that Jammeh is highly erratic and not exactly a rational person, something which he has proven, repeatedly, since 1994. In this sense, it is futile to attempt to explain his actions. What we must all collectively focus on is how to move The Gambia forward, usher in the democratically elected government of Adama Barrow, and begin to heal the country’s deep wounds and collective trauma that it has suffered for over 22 years.


TCB: Jammeh filed a petition with the country’s Supreme Court disputing the election result. Will the Court likely reject the petition or approve it? What happens next?

JS: To put it bluntly, The Gambia’s Supreme Court is not exactly a paragon of justice or professionalism. In fact, it hasn’t convened in over a year, and Jammeh has routinely removed or fired its justices – including the Chief Justice – many times over the years when they fail to bend to his unhinged whims. Currently, the Court does not contain a single Gambian judge, most of them being hired mercenaries from Nigeria and one from Sierra Leone. This, by the way, is awfully ironic for a leader who routinely decries so-called “foreign interference” and “meddling” in his country.

TCB: What’s the current state of democracy in The Gambia, compared to other countries in the region? Is the simple fact that the country held open elections a sign of progress? 

JS: The Gambia is undoubtedly a pariah state in West Africa and an extreme outlier in regards to other countries in the region who are performing rather well on a range of issues, including respect for political rights, civil liberties, and economic advancement. This reality, in fact, is one reason why I think regional leaders have been so proactive on the Gambian crisis and so adamant that Jammeh vacate the office of the presidency.  They are fed up with his antics and his abusive regime, which has become an embarrassment and a veritable black eye on a region that can tout many successes. Look no further than Ghana, which recently held a peaceful election in which the opposition candidate won, and the outgoing president graciously accepted defeat. 

The Gambia has consistently, and without fail, ranked woefully low on every conceivable index of democracy and human rights, from Freedom in the World, to the Ibrahim Index, Reporters Without Borders, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Even on the economy, The Gambia is the only country in ECOWAS to actually have a net decline in GDP per capita since 1994, the year Jammeh came to power, and currently ranks second to last, behind only Niger. Indeed, Gambian citizens are poorer today than they were when Jammeh took office over two decades ago. It’s no wonder, then, that Gambians comprised the fourth largest group of refugees and migrants who reached Italy by sea over the past year, despite being the smallest country in mainland Africa. There is little economic opportunity and very few prospects for actually getting ahead, which will be a significant and pressing challenge for the incoming Barrow Administration. 

TCB: How is/could the current political situation in The Gambia affect stability in surrounding countries in West Africa?

JS: For over two decades, Yahya Jammeh has been at the center of unrest in the region, from his prominent role in the drug trade and illegal timber sales, to alleged arms dealing and his support for the Casamance rebellion in neighboring Senegal. Jammeh has run The Gambia like a mafia state, creating an entirely vexing problem for other leaders in the region, who would otherwise be hesitant to speak out against a fellow head of state.

Again, I think Jammeh’s overall unpopularity – both in The Gambia and outside its tiny borders – has become increasingly evident since the December 1 election. Leaders in ECOWAS, from President Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, are indeed working overtime – both behind the scenes and publicly – to resolve the crisis and to usher in a new democratic government, the leader of which they can actually partner and work with in good faith. 


TCB: Is ECOWAS going to send troops into The Gambia?

JS: To date, ECOWAS has yet to send ground troops or deploy a military force to The Gambia. However, an ECOWAS communiqué from December 17 did authorize a “standby force,” which has raised the stakes considerably. Essentially, the deployment is not conditioned on failed negotiations but simply says the force is “hereby deployed,” which certainly points to a bigger issue that is surely brewing. The military force, which will reportedly be led by Senegal, has a mandate to ensure that President-elect Barrow be sworn in by January 19, per The Gambia’s own constitution. This means that boots on the ground would necessarily be needed before then, giving us less than two weeks before a potential showdown. The Gambia’s army chief and longtime Jammeh ally, Ousman Badjie, stated on January 4 that he still stands by the outgoing President, making the situation that much more concerning and one worth watching. ECOWAS has clearly drawn a line in the sand, and their credibility is on the line should Jammeh continue his obstinacy.


TCB: How/why/or is the stability of The Gambia and West Africa important to U.S. national security interests?

JS: The stability and the future of The Gambia is important to the United States and should be a concern for all of us, because democracy and freedom matter. Here is a moment in which a repressed population, one that has literally been beaten down with impunity for over two decades, rose up and courageously took a stand against tyranny to choose a better, brighter, and more prosperous future. This peaceful revolution should be applauded and encouraged, and we cannot afford to turn our backs on the country.

Should Jammeh somehow successfully manage to cling to power – unconstitutionally and without the support of the Gambian people – what sort of message will that send? It would be a clarion call for other dictators and would-be rulers that they can hijack democracy and subvert the will of the people without consequence. Instances like this inevitably produce a multiplier effect, causing potential instability, bloodshed, and human rights abuses elsewhere. In short, this is not just about The Gambia but about the future of democracy in the region and beyond.  

The Author is Jeff Smith

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit organization that supports pro-reform, ethical leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa. Vanguard Africa worked extensively on the recent election in the Gambia, which included support to the political coalition that defeated President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled the country for 22 years. Mr. Smith has over a decade of experience working on international human rights and pro-democracy issues, including prior positions at the RFK... Read More

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