It finally became clear on January 21, 2017, that Yahya Jammeh, the long-serving autocratic president of The Gambia would step down and leave the country. The road to this point was a twisty one. Jammeh had lost the December 1, 2016, election to Adama Barrow (who represented a coalition of opposition parties). Although Jammeh, much to everyone’s surprise, initially conceded the election he quickly reverted to form and suggested that the election was not valid and called for a new one to be held–a position rejected by the opposition and the international community. Most notably, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took a firm line and recognized Barrow as the legitimate president and suggested that they might use military force to oust Jammeh. As negotiations between the parties remained inconclusive,arrow and his associates travelled to Senegal where, on January 19 he took the oath of office at the Gambian High Commission in Dakar. Meanwhile, ECOWAS forces, consisting primarily of Senegalese troops with Nigerian air and naval backing, mobilized to enforce the election results. After a tense period that saw ECOWAS forces briefly enter the country only to pull back, Gambians–and West Africans–could breath a sigh of relief as the by now completely isolated Jammeh agreed to go into exile with not a drop of blood shed. In the evening of January 21, Jammeh boarded a plane for Equatorial Guinea.
There is much to analyse in regards to these developments, ranging from Jammeh’s behaviour (why did he change his mind?), to the role of the very active diaspora and its key allies in bringing about this change, to the legality of the ECOWAS intervention. My purpose in this post, however, is to discuss some of the issues facing the Gambia as it transitions from a de facto dictatorship to a democratic country. As we get more information about the terms of the agreement that led to Jammeh relinquishing power, as more information from the country’s notorious security services come out, and as new decisions are made by the new government, some of the below change–it is based on the best available information as of January 26. Therefore, consider this very much an initial stab at sketching out some key considerations in the new The Gambia.
Prosecution of Jammeh and his allies?
The first order of business for the government, once a cabinet is formed, will be to figure out how much to dismantle the Jammeh order and what, if any, transitional justice measures will be adopted. This also depends on what happens in the next few weeks – there are scattered reports of violence (warning: graphic photo) between Jolas (the minority ethnic group to which Jammeh belongs) and other ethnic groups, and if goes beyond isolated incidents the need for a transitional justice process is arguably heightened.
As of this writing, the exact terms of the agreement are also not known–an uncertainty compounded by the fact that there were conflicting reports on social media, fake Twitter accounts of the new president, and that what appears to have been an earlier, rejected, draft of the agreement was posted on an AU website. Initial reports state that it involves some guarantees that Jammeh will be able to keep his wealth and to return to the Gambia after a period of time but it does not involve a blanket immunity other than what is already provided for former presidents in the Gambian constitution. Section 69(3) of the Gambian constitution states that there can be no civil action against a former president “in respect of any act done in his or her official capacity as President” and that there can be no criminal case against a former president unless the National Assembly–the Gambia’s legislature–has passed a motion with 2/3 support to this effect. This is far from a blanket immunity–a civil suit could be brought in the Gambia if information emerges if it alleges that the acts under consideration were not part of Jammeh’s official capacity as president, for example.
For his part, the incoming president has signalled support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), but it is currently unclear what this would entail and if it would be paired with an amnesty process as was the case in South Africa. The New York Times reported that Barrow said that “he would wait for the commission’s recommendations before taking action,” suggesting a somewhat different approach than the South African TRC and more along the lines of a commission of inquiry. It is also unclear what the jurisdiction would be – would it go as far back as 1994, the year Jammeh and his co-putschists seized power?
On an international level, while there has been some discussion in the Gambian diaspora of an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of Jammeh’s government, the ICC has not made any statements to that effect and it is unclear if Jammeh’s abuses, horrific as they were, fits any of the crimes that fall in ICC’s jurisdiction (Mark Kersten has a much more detailed discussion of why an ICC prosecution is unlikely). It is also possible that we will see some situation along the lines of the Hissene Habré (the ex-dictator of Chad) trial in Senegal. Finally, we cannot discount the possibility that some countries will exercise the principle of universal jurisdiction and bring charges against Jammeh or his associates. Indeed, on January 26 news were circulating on Twitter that Switzerland had done just that against Ousman Sonko, Jammeh’s notorious ex-Minister of the Interior.
Legal and political reform
Halifa Sallah, the coalition’s spokesperson, has signalled that there will be legal reforms prior to the next election. It is unclear what these reforms will entail but it is likely that the rules governing the registration of parties will be made less onerous. It is also possible that the practice of having nominated National Assembly members (currently, the president appoints, or nominates, 5 of the 53 members) might end.
It is unclear if more sweeping changes will be carried out in terms of laws. There has, for example, been no extensive discussion of a new constitution. But it is reasonable to expect that several laws from the Jammeh era that sought to curtail the opposition will be repealed or amended. The 2013 amendment to the 2009 Information and Communications Act, for example, garnered widespread criticism as it mandated a 15 year prison sentence for the spreading of false news or incitement of dissatisfaction. Relatedly, adoption of a robust Freedom of Information Act also appears to be a priority.
Whether APRC (Jammeh’s party) will continue to be a viable political force also remains to be seen. As of yet, there has been no significant discussion of banning the party or prohibiting its senior members from entering politics (which is what Jammeh did to the previous ruling party after seizing power). But it is difficult to see it remaining as powerful as it is without Jammeh as its patron. It is likely that at least some APRC members will defect to other parties such as UDP (the party of Barrow) or PDOIS (the party of Halifa Sallah), while others may simply retire from politics.
More generally, in terms of the political situation, it is worth paying attention to whether the coalition of opposition parties will remain harmonious now that it no longer is the opposition. What appears to be the inner circle around President Barrow is drawn from multiple parties (Alex Thurston has a useful rundown here) and it will be interesting to see if some opposition parties are sidelined or return to the opposition, as it were.
The loyalty of the military was an open question until the very end of the Jammeh era, as well illustrated by the ever-shifting attitudes of Ousman Badjie, Chief of Defence Forces. Even after Jammeh left the country, there was a tense standoff between Gambian soldiers and ECOWAS soldiers at the State House in Banjul. In response to this uncertainty, it appears to be the case that ECOWAS forces will stay in the Gambia for some time–six months appears to be the most frequently discussed length of time.
It is also safe to assume that there will be an attempt to refashion the security services, including possibly disbanding those services most implicated with Jammeh-era human rights abuses. The National Intelligence Agency is high on this list as it was a Jammeh-era invention whose sole purpose appears to have been oppression. It is also possible that there will be attempts to lay off members of the security services that are suspected of having lingering loyalties to Jammeh.
It is worth noting here that the Gambian Armed Forces are actually quite small – estimates range from just under 1,000 men and women to a little over 2,000 men and women—and for a large part of its history the Gambia did not have a military (prior to the coup attempt in 1981, the Gambia had a small paramilitary unit referred to as the Field Force). It is possible, although nothing has been said to this effect, that the Barrow government will reassess the nature, scope, and size of the country’s military forces.
It is unclear if the change in government will have a significant impact on the Gambian Police Force (GPF). While the GPF, most notably its Police Intervention Unit, has been accused of human rights abuses in the past, its problems are more along the lines of everyday corruption, lack of resources, poor knowledge of regulations, etc.
Jump-starting a stagnant economy will be one of the priorities for the new government, a priority made all the more urgent by reports that Jammeh essentially bled the country dry before going into exile (these reports were subsequently denied). Even discounting this possibility of theft, the Gambia’s economy is in dire straits with no significant manufacturing or resources and official debt at over 100% of GDP.
The Gambia is reliant on international tourism, primarily from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden with somewhere close to 20% of its GDP coming from tourism (estimates do vary) and it is a major source of foreign currency. During the crisis, tourism nosedived and tourists in the country were evacuated. Tourism needs to re-start, and increase, in order for the already weak Gambian economy not to be damaged further.
In addition, due to the Jammeh government’s human rights abuses, the European Union cut development aid and the US government removed the Gambia from AGOA (the benefits of which to the Gambia were unclear and future of which is uncertain under President Trump anyway). Presumably, the EU will resume of its aid to the Gambia, although it needs to be noted that the future of aid to Africa generally does appear uncertain in an age of Brexit.
In the medium to long-term, it is hoped that the new government will make changes that will further attract economic growth and investment. A less erratic foreign policy would be part of this equation, as would greater transparency, strengthened commitment to the rule of law, etc. It needs also be noted that by all accounts Jammeh used his power to undercut competing business interests (with his bakery, for example) or to support his allies’ economic goals. There are plenty of stories in the Gambia of the Jammeh government confiscating land for economic development only for this to profit himself and his allies.
It is also important to note that the Euro-Mediterranean migration crisis is a major backdrop to the election as the Gambia is one of the highest per capita “senders” of migrants. Several opposition figures, including Barrow, made stopping migration a central theme in their campaigns. Barrow has said that he wants to “overhaul” the economic system and create jobs to prevent further out migration, but the details are fuzzy.
By the time Jammeh’s reign was over, he was pretty isolated internationally. The incoming administration has already signalled that they will reverse several controversial decisions taken by Jammeh. One can thus expect the Gambia to return to the International Criminal Court and to the Commonwealth. Presumably, the relations with European Union and the United States will thaw as well. As of yet, the new government has not addressed relations with China; Jammeh abruptly shifted the Gambia’s allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2013, allegedly after the former refused provide additional aid through non-official channels.
One relationship that is worth paying extra attention to going forward is the relationship with Senegal. Jammeh’s relationship with Senegal was prickly to put it mildly; Jammeh has been rumoured for a long time to give support to the rebels in Senegal’s souther Casamance region and Jammeh has engaged in an on-again-off-again trade war with Senegal. For example, in 2016, the Jammeh government unilaterally increased the fee payable by Senegalese truckers for crossing the Gambia 100 times.
Of course, if it weren’t for Senegalese troops, it is unlikely that Barrow would be in Banjul in the first place and it seems like the new government will be reliant on Senegal for its security for at least a while moving forward. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at least some Senegalese think that Senegal should take the opportunity to push for a revival of the Senegambian Confederation, which was established after another political crisis in the Gambia that was only resolved with Senegalese intervention, but the incoming government of the Gambia has not signalled anything that would suggest that such a revival is on the agenda.
Niklas Hultin is an assistant professor in the Global Affairs Program at George Mason University. He has done extensive research in the Gambia. More information about his academic work is here: https://gmu.academia.edu/NiklasHultin and he is on Twitter as @nhultin.