Adama Barrow was sworn-in January 19 as the president of the Gambia at his country’s embassy in Dakar. He was the victor in the Gambia’s presidential elections on December 11. However, Yahya Jammeh, the loser of the election, who has ruled Gambia since 1994, refuses to step down. The members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the Senegalese at the lead have sent in military forces. The UN Security Council, which convened today, announced its support of Barrow, but emphasized pursuing a political transition first.
Though Senegal has the military lead, Nigeria has been playing its traditional role as the hegemon of West Africa and the mainspring of ECOWAS. On January 18, Nigeria announced that it had sent aircraft and personnel to Senegal to bolster any military effort. Nigeria is also sending a warship off the coast, both as a show of force and also to evacuate Nigerian citizens, if necessary. Meanwhile, there is evacuation of European tourists from beach resorts, especially British and Dutch.
The Gambia is Africa’s smallest country. The Jammeh government has been a classic example of poor governance. The modern sector of the economy revolves around European tourism. Its military force is tiny. One estimate is that it is no larger than 2,500. The country would seem to have little economic or political influence on the larger West African region. Yet, the current crisis appears to be roiling West African governments and elite opinion. Much further afield, even Botswana has denounced Jammeh’s refusal to go.
Many Africans are looking over their shoulders at the 2010-2011 election crisis in Ivory Coast, when contested election results led to violent conflict and the overthrow of the incumbent president. However, the Gambia is not nearly as important economically or politically as the Ivory Coast, nor are its divisions along ethnic and religious lines so acute. Nevertheless, West Africans are right to be concerned about Jammeh’s flagrant challenge to credible elections and therefore to emerging democracy.
In West Africa, led by Nigeria, there is general opposition to military coups or other irregular grasps for power. If Jammeh continues to refuse to go, it is likely that with the support of the UN Security Council, ECOWAS member states will intervene militarily.