‘Gambia has decided’ – the motto of the revolution is omnipresent on the streets of Banjul, the capital of the small West African country that is almost completely encompassed by neighbouring Senegal. For the first time in its history, free and fair presidential elections were held in Gambia on 1 December 2016. In a surprising result, opposition candidate Adama Barrow defeated long-term incumbent Yahya Jammeh, a man who is considered certainly one of the most bizarre dictators on the continent. Unsurprising was that former president Jammeh refused to accept his defeat, triggering a constitutional crisis that forced a quarter of the two million Gambians to flee the country.

Image courtesy of US Army Africa © 2016, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of US Army Africa © 2016, some rights reserved.

After the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) failed to persuade Jammeh to step down, a coalition of military forces from Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana invaded Gambia under the auspices of ECOWAS on 19 January 2017. During the first hours of the invasion, most of his cabinet as well as the army officially proclaimed to refuse allegiance to Jammeh, leaving him no other option than relinquishing power and leaving the country for an ECOWAS-arranged exile in Equatorial Guinea on 21 January. Five days later, Barrow – who resided in Senegal during the crisis – returned to Gambia, making him the first president in the history of the former British colony that came to power through the ballot box.

Over 20 years of dictatorship were suddenly over, without any bloodshed or the outbreak of a civil war. This certainly makes the transition in Gambia remarkable – but should it be seen as proof that African leaders are increasingly willing to demand and enforce democracy in the region or rather as an isolated incidence?

A model for peaceful regime change?

After the state of emergency had been terminated through the military intervention, Barrow asked the about 2500 ECOWAS troops to remain in the country for six months in order to stabilise the situation. However, as the record of military interventions in Africa shows, this last resort of the international community is a double-edged sword. In the usual scenario, chaos and a great number of casualties are preprogramed, as exemplified in the interventions in Darfur in 2004, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010 or in Libya in 2011.

The main reason why African leaders decided to intervene in Gambia within a matter of days is that Jammeh was an easy target against which to align. With a long record of human rights abuses and a repressive style of governance, he had successively distanced himself from both regional and Western leaders. He had jailed journalists and opposition leaders, promised to heal AIDS with herbs and had been widely disliked for years. Additionally, Gambia’s economy, which heavily relies on the export of peanuts to China, had reached rock bottom and was not of importance to any of the neighbouring countries.

Thus, Gambia was not strategic to anyone, and the regional hegemons, Senegal and Nigeria, saw their opportunity to demonstrate unity and strength before the eyes of the international community. Furthermore, the intervention in Gambia was a case in point for the ECOWAS’ ambition to enhance the relevance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, transforming the principle of non-interference to non-indifference and treating sovereignty as a responsibility, rather than simply given.

Setbacks to African democracy

Despite this desirable development toward an increasingly autonomous peace and security architecture in Africa, the intervention in Gambia remains a rare instance of an African regional coalition willing to go beyond mere rhetoric and responding to the will and democratic aspiration of an entire people.

In fact, the record of democracy throughout the African continent has been volatile in recent years. Although some African nations, such as Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, have recently experienced their first peaceful elections or democratic transitions in decades, many states are still characterised by fraudulent elections and autocratic leaders who are poised to hold on to power until death, with little threat of intervention from neighbouring countries.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo for instance, President Joseph Kabila is still in office even though his term officially expired at the end of last year. An election has been postponed several times and may not take place until 2018. Yet, neither the African Union nor any other regional organisations have deployed troops to remove him, as they are aware of the potentially threatening consequences for security in Central Africa.

In Gabon last year, violence broke out after President Ali Bongo Ondimba was re-elected amid obvious manipulations of the vote – the same scenario occurred in the Republic of Congo as well as in Uganda. Hence, it might be too early to celebrate the peaceful transition in Gambia as the final breakthrough for democracy in Africa. One should not forget that the continent, with its 54 officially recognized states, is inherently diverse and heterogeneous – thus, a positive development in a small Western African country does not necessarily have positive spill-over effects to the rest of Africa.

Happy endings or empty promises?

While these discussions about the future of democracy in Africa take place, ex-president Jammeh is beginning his new life in Equatorial Guinea, with more than 10 million dollars from the public purse in his pockets. Equatorial Guinea is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and legal experts say Jammeh may well be beyond the reach of Gambian or international justice. After 22 years of dictatorship with a extensive record of injustice and violence, this is good news not only for himself but for all autocrats in the region. Thus, the price for democracy in Gambia was high. If the new president will indeed be more democratic than his predecessor, it will become apparent in the next months, after the honeymoon phase of his presidency is over. The challenges ahead are tremendous: Among others, a truth and reconciliation process has to be initiated to re-unite the Gambian people and the economy needs to liven up. Should Barrow fail to uphold these expectations, democracy might quickly turn into an empty platitude for the Gambian people.