The Gambia and the rest of Africa: lunacy or paranoid leadership?

It is hard not to discuss African leadership predicament at the beginning of 2017 without mentioning the transition muddle and the indescribable political drama that played out in the Gambia recently. Indeed, there were reasonable fears by sanguine observers that the incumbent President Yaya Jammeh, a former military dictator, and now a self-acclaimed born-again democrat after 22 years as President, had wanted to circumvent or disregard the elections in which Adama Barrow of the opposition party won on the of 1st December 2016.

This article examines the salient stepladder that the Economic Community of West Africa States brought to the negotiation table in order to avoid collateral damage. It proposes diplomatic options that helped in curtailing the potentially explosive situation in the Gambia and indeed takes a cursory look into other authoritarian buccaneers across Africa and their negative impact on good governance.

Increasingly, entrenched patrimonial leadership regimes across Africa are exploiting their legal framework in order to eliminate opposition rather than relying solely on violence and political repression. Disappointingly, the precarious issue of smooth transition in the Gambia was tricky and the leaders tread carefully in order not to jeopardise the fragile peace within the sub-region, particularly the border countries of Mali, Guinea, Guinea- Bissau and Mauritania.

 It should be noted that Mali has a dreadful reputation with radical Islam and Talibanism and its pivotal role as safe haven for al-Qaeda in West Africa could not be miscalculated. Guinea–Bissau on the other hand, with its unsavoury character for clandestine illicit drug trade, made volatility in the Gambia a momentous danger to the sub-region. In addition, and most important, was the patrimonial and treacherous tendencies of Yaya Jammeh in the drama. Although Jammeh eventually fled to Equatorial Guinea, the current government must profile Jammeh’s motivation for his long stay in power with a view to uncover the intensity of the unsettled and naive political system that produce a military junta that has stayed in power for 22 years without respect for democratic ethos.

Curiously, the leadership of ECOWAS must have taken into account the events of April 2015, when the Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza became one of the most recent African leaders who attempted to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally mandated limit, bringing violent protests across Burundi. In this regard, diplomatic alternative was pursued and genuine efforts were made to wear out the electoral provisions as enshrined in the Gambia constitution before 19 January 2017.

Unfortunately, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi and the Congolese President Joseph Kabila have already shown malevolent signs that they are considering ways to extend their terms. Sadly, the wicked spirit of many leaders in Africa is allowing them to bring about violence, causing many of them to sabotage their countries, refusing a smooth transition. Hence, most African countries are unable to come together and use their rich lands and resources to develop.

Furthermore, the tragedy of the patrimonial African leadership is that they always put themselves first, and in the process, they discourage and put down anyone who may dare to challenge dictatorship. While other nations in the global North are fighting for good governance and democratic ideologies that would better their citizens, the African leaders continue to manipulate democratic processes by creating weak institutions that help them to cling to power.

According to Freedom in the World 2015, patrimonial and authoritarian regimes in Africa continue to use unnecessary legal pressure, imprisonment, and other forms of political harassment to suppress independent reporting and free press, which is the hallmark of sustainable democracy.

For the avoidance of doubt, some of the notorious patrimonial or paranoid leaders parading themselves as democrats include T. Obiang (Equatorial Guinea, over 36 years in office), J.E. dos Santos (Angola, 36 years), R. Mugabe (Zimbabwe, 35 years), and P. Biya (Cameroon, 33 years), among others.

The African Union must purge itself of tyranny and embrace a sustainable succession plan with a view to enhancing good governance and development.

Sadly, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation had announced earlier in 2016 that it found no winner for the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership for 2015. One of the major conditions for winning this highly coveted award is that nominees must be democratically elected leaders who have stepped down from office willingly, after serving their constitutionally mandated terms during which they must have demonstrated excellence in office. It was indeed a shame that for five times in nine years no political leader could emerge as a winner.

Going forward, the ECOWAS should set clear expectations for respecting term limits and consider  passing a declaration in the supplementary protocol on good governance that ensure leaders who change constitutions while in office do not benefit from such amendments. Equally important is citizens’ diplomacy that helps to put elected leaders in check by voting out autocrats masquerading as democrats.

Citizens’ diplomacy should include election oversight, strict regulations on tenure and rule of law, and above all, awareness of the poor recruitment process of political leaders and the manipulation of the electorate with ethnicity, religion and ancestral worships and rent benefaction, which has become an pig-headed challenge in Africa political leadership.

Indeed, the African Union should amend Article 12 of the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, and the ECOWAS supplementary protocol on good governance that calls on contracting state parties to promote principles and practices necessary for a democratic culture. Introducing new and hard-hitting instruments will curtail leaders with tendencies for tenure elongation in Africa while upholding the self-government of the state and its responsibility to protect citizens.  

Overall, the question that remains pivotal is: what will the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) and indeed the African union (AU) do to sustain peace and democratic values with the recurrence of unrestricted camaraderie among Africa’s leaders threatening good governance throughout the continent.


By Samuel Akpobome Orovwuje