Changing political culture in Western Africa

After a political deadlock, the Gambia`s long time leader Yahya Jammeh was forced by Western African countries to step down and hand the presidency over to democratically elected Adama Barrow. Gambian journalist Mustapha Mopu Kah provides some insight on the post-election situation in his country. 

 

Interviewer: Murad Muradov

 

 

What is known about the personality of the newly elected and sworn President Adama Barrow? Is he known for his commitment to democracy and human rights in the past?

In fact, very few people knew about President Barrow until recently since oppositional activity had long been strongly suppressed in the Gambia. Only last year did he come to the spotlight when the United Democratic Party, one of the oppositional parties in the country he belonged to, chose him as its candidate to stand at the upcoming presidential elections. Then, after a wave of demonstrations against the Jammeh regime was brutally turned down, and many of the protesters were arrested and several people actually tortured to death, a coalition of 7 opposition parties finally decided to stand in a common front at the elections and chose Barrow to represent it since he was the optimal candidate for all. 

 

Has President Barrow already made some real steps to ensure the transition to democracy he preaches?

In fact, very little time has passed since the transition of power happened, so it’s quite understandable that this far there have been mostly statements. President Barrow had been absent from the country during the 2 weeks of the post-election turmoil; and in the end, it took an intervention to install him, so it will take some time for the situation to fully cool down. President has already confirmed his intention to guarantee democratic governance, protect human rights and turn away from the Islamic Republic endorsed by Jammeh, to a more secular regime. His most important step has been a decree releasing political prisoners from jail- it was an important issue for the Gambian society, so this first step is a promise for better future.

 

Please describe briefly the regime established by ex-President Jammeh. Was it oligarchic, or the leader was more inclined to an unrestrained strongman rule? Does he retain popularity among some groups of the population?

Jammeh was a very strong leader and didn’t really want to share any swath of his power with anyone. He came from the military background and that leaved a definite imprint on his style of governance and behaviour. Though he was hostile to a free expression of thoughts and oppositional activity, many people admired his “firm hand” and public communication skills. But eventually many Gambians became fed up with Jammeh’s rule as it was growing more and more authoritarian, and rallied against him. Anyway, ex-President still enjoys support among certain groups, most of all, quite naturally, among the young army cadres he put much attention to.  Some people even cried when he was leaving the country into exile. In the end, Jammeh garnered a big share of vote at the recent elections without any fraud. To describe him briefly, I can say that he was very divisive, a love-him-or-hate-him kind of personality. So now it’s a big task not to exclude his supporters from political participation.

 

Why has the ECOWAS decided to undertake an armed intervention? What kind of relations did Jammeh have with the countries of the region and the ECOWAS administration?

Well, it depended on what country we are talking about. President Jammeh had enjoyed long-term close relationships with some of the regional leaders, particularly Guinea’s veteran president Alpha Conde. It was him who was finally summoned to fly to Banjoul and persuade Jammeh to leave office when the intervention was under way. However, there were countries he failed to build up good relations with, most importantly the Gambia’s only direct neighbour, Senegal. Throughout Jammeh’s years in power, the Dakar government frequently accused Jammeh of supporting separatists in the region of Casamance in Southern Senegal. A lot of fracases around the border were happening. Ultimately, Senegal played a big role in organizing the anti-Jammeh campaign in the wake of the elections and preparing theintervention.The Senegalese government was very intent on making him go. 

Regarding the international environment in Western Africa, it has been profoundly changing in the recent years as many leaders started to be more pronounced on such issues as protection of human rights and democracy as a matter of regional importance and not merely a domestic affair of country leaders. So ECOWAS also became more active in promoting these principles. In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan peacefully stepped down after losing the very divisive elections in 2015; in Ghana the recent power transition from John Mahama to President Akufo-Addo was conventional, too. Changing political culture in Western African countries means that electoral fraud and dictatorial rule are less and less tolerated. So, ever since President Jammeh refused to leave office, ECOWAS launched active attempts to negotiate his step down: 3 or 4 missions to persuade him had been sent before the intervention, including one where 5 prominent politicians, such as acting presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone, Nigerian President, and former president of Ghana. After exhausting all the opportunities to secure the execution of the popular will in a peaceful manner, a decision was taken to bring troops. Of course, support provided by the UN Security Council granted additional legitimacy.

 

Does a regular mechanism exist to handle political crises in ECOWAS? Have similar interventions already been undertaken earlier?

ECOWAS has played a pivotal role in developing interstate cooperation in the region. Indeed, it has quite a long history of crisis missions. For example, the organization intervened in Sierra Leone when an internal strife broke out there upon the removal of President Ahmad Tejan from office. It has also helped to end the domestic conflict in Liberia that took years. But the Gambian case is unique, since this time the intervention aimed at removing the sitting president and restore constitutional order before any internal conflict would happen. This step is a good promise for the future of the region, meaning that democratic procedure will have much stronger guarantees from now on. It may help to consolidate democracy and rule of law in many Western African countries. The majority of Gambians supported the intervention, and it is a powerful sign that we are on the right track.

 

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