The recent warning by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu that any use of military might to force Jammeh out of office in The Gambia could have dire consequences for the country and the West African sub-region was a well- intentioned intervention. However, it is a classic case of where the unintended consequences of a good intention could be far more damaging than what the good intention was meant to avert. Yahya Jammeh has vowed not to step down after initially conceding defeat in the 2016 presidential election in The Gambia.
In a statement issued through his media adviser Uche Anichukwu, Ike Ekweremadu was quoted as saying: “We must all acknowledge the fact that Gambia is a sovereign state. If her Constitution and electoral laws allow for judicial role in resolving electoral disputes, then the Gambian constitutional courts must be allowed to count in resolving the political impasse.” Ekweremadu, a lawyer and former Speaker of the Parliament of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Parliament), urged the ECOWAS Heads of State and Government as well as the international community to explore dialogue and to allow The Gambian laws to prevail as a sovereign nation. Ekweremadu said he was concerned that the sub-region has been a theater of much bloodletting and instability.
Born on May 25, 1965, Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh, who goes by several official titles including “His Excellency,” “Sheikh,” “Professor” “Alhaji” and “Doctor” transformed himself into a civilian President of his country in 1996. He had seized power in his tourism-dependent country of only 1.9 million people on July 22, 1994, after toppling the country’s President Sir Dawda Jawara. Jammeh, then a lieutenant in the army, was only 29 years old. After two years of ruling his tiny country as a military dictator, he sought to legitimate his rule by founding the political party, Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, through which he transformed himself into a civilian President in September 1996 – amid charges that the election was rigged. He was re-elected in 2001, 2006 and 2011 for his second, third and fourth terms respectively. He ran into difficulties in his quest for a fifth term last year when he was defeated by Adama Barrow. He conceded defeat on 9 December 2016 but reversed himself days later and rejected the result citing “unacceptable abnormalities.” He filed a petition with the Supreme Court of the Gambia, which was expected to deliver judgment in the case on January 10, 2017. Meanwhile, ECOWAS threatened that it would use force if Jammeh failed to step down by January 18, 2017, when a new President is expected to be sworn in.
Ekweremadu advanced two grounds for objecting to the use of military force against Jammeh – the need to respect Gambia’s sovereignty and to avert bloodshed. I will like to interrogate these grounds:
On the need to respect Gambia’s sovereignty, it must be emphasized that the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state has evolved. In fact, since the 1990s, there has been a normative shift away from the traditional understanding of state sovereignty to an acceptance of sovereignty as responsibility. This is the underlying premise of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, a commitment which was endorsed by all the member states of the United Nations in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Part of the arguments of R2P, which was based on the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, is that in a globalized world, where what affects one country often has repercussion on several others, the doctrine of ‘non-interference’ should have the doctrines of ‘non-indifference’ and R2P as its checks. In the case of The Gambia, the relevant question is: should the international community remain indifferent when Gambians are seemingly incapable of extricating themselves from the rule of a President who was apparently rejected at the poll but who has vowed to rule the country for one billion years – “if Allah wills”? In this respect, the Responsibility to Protect and the doctrine of non-indifference are to be seen in the same light as the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Sure, there are always concerns that big powers could abuse the R2P to pursue their own agenda in smaller states. But the Gambian case does not fall into such a category. What could be the vested interest of the ECOWAS members that have urged Jammeh to step down and offered him assurances of protection from witch hunt? I am not sure any ECOWAS member country or any member of the international community is interested in taking over the country’s tourism.
In countries where the institutions are strong, there could be some hope (as Ekweremadu inferred) that the judges could be relied upon to do the right thing. But this is not the case in The Gambia, which like most African countries, could qualify to be called a ‘Banana Republic.’ For instance, Jammeh recently appointed six new judges to the Supreme Court of The Gambia, having sacked all but one in 2015. Does anyone really expect these new Judges to pass a judgment that will be unfavorable to Jammeh?
Ekweremadu’s second ground of objection- namely that intervention could lead to loss of lives and could worsen the political instability in the sub-region – is also problematic. The truth is that denying Barrow his victory on the altar of expediency could also lead to violence, especially if his supporters choose to take the laws into their hands. The greater danger, however, is that if Jammeh is allowed to have his way, it could incentivize a new form of coup-making where leaders who lose at the polls will refuse to step down and use state machinery to browbeat the opposition. Africa has passed through phases of coup-making– from military coups to ‘constitutional coups’ and now ‘election coups’ (where incumbents who lose try to use subterfuges to hang on to power). It will be a tragedy if Africans allow this new form of coup making to take root.
Across Africa, liberal or Western democracy is being universalized, usually with term limits. Liberal democracy is not perfect, but there is no credible alternative – despite the rhetoric of some revisionists. The continent’s liberal democracy project faces resistance from three forces: adventurist soldiers who nurse nostalgia for the period when the military was the shortest route to political power in Africa, political leaders who nurse nostalgia for the period of one-party dictatorships and life presidencies, and rulers who refuse to quit after losing elections. Following from this, to buy Ekweremadu’s argument would not only be a dangerous PR for Jammeh but also a gross disservice for the continent’s fledgling democracy project. ECOWAS should do the needful in The Gambia. That is one way to discourage the new phenomenon of ‘election coup’ from taking root in the continent.
While vigilance, they say, is the price of liberty, we must also begin honest conversations on why some leaders are unwilling to quit in Africa. One of the reasons Jammeh was suspected to have changed his mind after conceding defeat initially was the triumphalism of Barrow’s supporters who had arrogantly announced that they would probe Jammeh for corruption and human rights abuses. Studies have shown that fear of persecution is one of the reasons for the phenomenon of ‘sit-tightism’ among African leaders in Africa. It also explains why some of us have been consistently against efforts to demonize or humiliate former President Jonathan who helped to avert bloodshed in the country by conceding defeat after losing in the March 2015 presidential election. In Africa’s transition period, leaders who willingly concede power ought to have some form of immunity from persecution.