The Billion-Year Rule: Gambia’s Election Crisis and the Case for Regional Intervention

President Yahya Jammeh told Gambia he would rule for a billion years. But on December 1, 2016, the Gambian people decided otherwise. In a shocking election celebrated by the international community as fair, free, and legitimate, opposition candidate Adama Barrow prevailed, ending Jammeh’s troubled 22-year rule. But the transition would not come without significant struggle.

Although Jammeh initially accepted the election results, a week later he switched course and refused to cede power to Barrow. In response, multinational actors condemned his stance: Both the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – the regional bloc to which Gambia belongs – responded by formally recognizing Barrow as the victor. The AU delegation sent to observe the election requested that Jammeh transfer power peacefully to his successor. After weeks of ineffective diplomatic pressure and growing social unrest, ECOWAS took an unprecedented and controversial step in safeguarding democracy in its member-states: It invaded. A regional force of 7,000 West African troops entered Gambia while Barrow was inaugurated in neighboring Senegal. Quickly running out of options, Jammeh stepped down and fled into exile. Accompanied by Nigerian and Senegalese forces, Barrow’s supporters gathered at the airport to welcome their new president as he stepped off the tarmac on January 26.

Only a few months earlier, a similar election story unfolded in Gabon, but with a distinctly different result. On August 31, President Ali Bongo Ondimba announced himself victorious over his opponent, Jean Ping, despite concerns of validity and international calls for a recount. Ondimba, whose father reigned for 42 years before him, ascended to power in 2009 and repudiated all criticisms of his election’s credibility. The African Union was blocked from holding an independent recount, and Gabon’s constitutional courts – controlled by Ondimba appointees – claimed one couldn’t be held because the ballots were already destroyed. Civil unrest ensued, with protestors clashing violently with military personnel in the streets of the capital. Over the course of two days, the Parliament was set on fire, over 1,000 Gabonese were arrested, and seven were killed in the altercations following the election.

But unlike the situation in Gambia, the international and regional community did not step into any peacekeeping role. The AU and UN issued no formal endorsements or requests of Ondimba. The regional bloc to which Gabon belongs – the Economic Community of Central African States (ECOCAS)– did not take diplomatic action, let alone utilize military force, leaving Gabon’s protestors to stand alone. With little resistance, president Ondimba carried his family into their fiftieth year of power in early September.

Of course, Gabon and Gambia are not alone in their rocky relationships with peaceful transitions of power. Of the world’s 30 longest-serving leaders, 14 are African heads of state. While nations such as Ghana, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast have recently celebrated peaceful transitions of power, others have struggled to follow suit. The recent political narrative of long-serving presidents, questionable election transparency, and iron-fisted responses to civilian protests in countries such as Gambia and Gabon shows the critical need for election observers and peacekeepers to enforce fair election results.

President Jammeh’s unconventional actions, which ranged from cruel to strange, made him an international pariah. UN investigations into Jammeh’s rule uncovered torture, forced disappearances, and persecution of journalists and political opposition. Jammeh promised to personally decapitate homosexuals who did not leave the country, and left the Commonwealth of Nations while declaring Gambia an Islamic republic. Disliked and lacking global allies, Jammeh was isolated in his moment of political upheaval.

This personal isolation was reinforced by Gambia’s geopolitical positioning and global economic insignificance. Consistently ranked as having one of the lowest national net worth values in the world, Gambia’s largest trading partners on the continent are other regional ECOWAS members such as Mali, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau. No major Western powers had strategic or economic interest in Jammeh’s administration, including the British, despite a prior colonial relationship. Additionally, Gambia is completely surrounded by Senegal, providing a relatively easy path for regional forces to access and enter. The regional troops deployed by ECOWAS were mostly Senegalese soldiers who were already stationed on the border.

If the stars aligned for ECOWAS’s intervention in Gambia, the perfect storm prevented its central African counterpart, ECOCAS, from doing the same in Gabon. Despite some of the same allegations of human rights abuses, such as instances of torture and extrajudicial killings, Ondimba’s international reputation did not suffer as Jammeh’s did. While Jammeh was unpopular on the international stage, President Obama and his administration developed a close relationship with Ondimba while in office to further American interests. In serious need of regional leaders to support US operations in Africa, Obama found the perfect ally in the Gabonese president, who had rotated onto the United Nations Security Council just as the US was in dire need of members to support its actions in Libya. Following a vote that aligned with US strategic interests, Ondimba solidified his reputation as a friend of the Obama administration. The US response to the disputed election results in Gabon was tepid at best. The US Embassy in Libreville issued a meek call for transparency on its Facebook page, acknowledging room for improvement and asking the administration to release the polling results. Praising the professionalism of the local officials, the online statement was in no way a rallying cry to ensure a legitimate recount. While the US did express concern over the transparency of election results, it made clear it would not be leading nor endorsing the resistance regardless of the movement’s validity.

Intervention in Gabon also posed geographic and economic challenges that the Gambian crisis did not. While Gambia is physically surrounded by a stable and peaceful nation, Gabon sits in an oil-rich region mired in instability and government corruption. Further, Gabon’s major export destinations – China, Japan, and Australia – all lie outside the continent. This meant that Gabon’s regional neighbors did not have the same economic leverage as ECOWAS did with Gambia.

One other factor looms large in the divergent paths taken by Gambia and Gabon. Beyond their different geopolitical positions and leaders’ relationships and alliances, there are drastically different roles for the regional blocs involved. ECOWAS and ECOCAS seem identical in nature: They are both pillars of the African Union’s regional Economic Community and appear parallel in function and structure. Yet their differences are stark. In 1981, only six years after the blocs’ initial formation, member states of ECOWAS reconvened to sign an additional agreement: the Protocol on Mutual Defense Assistance. The treaty created a multilateral armed force that could be deployed to defend the region from external aggression in a coordinated and collective manner. Over the years ECOWAS began to use this authority to police internal aggression in nations such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau, where it served as an immediate presence before United Nations peacekeeping troops could arrive. Because West African multilateral forces had already been deployed in times of civil war, they were positioned to be used as peacekeepers for electoral unrest as well.

As Gambia ushers in a new era of democracy, Gabon enters its sixth decade under the same ruling family. Gambia’s peaceful transition of power left no one dead; Gabon’s disputed results and violent protests did. With an eye to the future, one can hope regional intervention might play a role again in preventing violence and safeguarding democracy. Highly anticipated elections in Rwanda, Kenya, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are all quickly approaching this year. If the results are condemned or disputed by independent bodies, or a leader silences opposition to extend his rule, perhaps organized regional responses will find their footing and intervene. Though West Africa’s cooperation was aided by historical circumstances, collective security can still be applicable to other regions. With the precedent set by ECOWAS’s action in Gambia, other African regional blocs may be poised to do the same.