Elections matter – in Gambia, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire

ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, is becoming a beacon of democracy. Its leaders are now putting pressure on Yahya Jammeh, who was defeated in a recent election, but is still in office as Gambia’s head of state. ECOWAS wants him to step down peacefully. Other African regional organisations would do well to insist on democratic norms with similar resolve.

Immediately after the election, Jammeh conceded he lost, but he later changed his mind, insisting the vote was flawed. One reason is probably that the winner, President-elect Adama Barrow, indicated he wanted to take Jammeh to court. Jammeh has a track record of violence and human-rights abuses after more than two decades in office. Observers believe that he felt absolutely sure of being re-elected and would otherwise have manipulated the elections.

Jammeh always had a tight grip on the security forces, and many Gambians feel intimidated by his claim to be the rightful winner. Few people, however, find is arguments convincing. He is quite obviously a power hungry strongman who does not want to be taken to account – whether by voters or judges. He once boasted that, Allah willing, he’d rule Gambia for 1 billion years.

His country belongs to ECOWAS, and the other top leaders of this organisations have made it clear they want to see him out of office in four weeks. At a regional summit on Saturday, they demanded that he must transfer power peacefully to Barrow and promised to enforce the election results should he refuse to do so. They also pledged to guarantee Barrow’s safety. Moreover, they said they would attend Barrow’s inauguration. These are helpfully strong words.

ECOWAS is becoming a beacon of democracy. Peaceful transfers of power after elections have in recent years occurred in important member countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal. Indeed, Ghana’s President John Mahama, who recently lost elections himself and will leave office soon, is now among the leaders who are calling on Jammeh to step down.

ECOWAS has also supported democratisation in Burkina Faso, when a popular movement rose up against the authoritarian leader Blaise Compaoré, who had run the country for decades and wanted yet another term in office. With the support of French troops, moreover, ECOWAS has helped Mali and Cote d’Ivoire return to democracy in recent years. Mali had suffered a military coup and an Islamist insurgency; Cote d’Ivoire had been tossed into crisis when Laurent Gbagbo, a former president, refused to accept electoral defeat six years ago. It matters that the French interventions were not imposed from outside the world region, but welcomed by ECOWAS and even supported by troops from its member countries. It is a promising sign, moreover, that Cote d’Ivoire held peaceful parliamentary elections on Sunday, and, unlike five years ago, the main opposition party took part.

Unfortunately, the other African regional organisations’ commitment to democracy is not as strong. Their top leaders keep failing to put appropriate pressure on strongmen such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Ali Bongo of Gabon, Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indeed, the DRC is facing a serious crisis because Kabila insists on extending his term of office, which, according to the constitution, ends today). In fear of further riots, the government has suspended football matches for four weeks, after police recently clashed with protesters near Kinshasa’s stadium ahead of a game.  

The truth is African presidents all too often feel they are entitled to staying in office no matter what the people want, and that their counterparts in other African countries endorse them. The West African approach is different – and better. Presidents should insist on democratic legitimacy throughout their world region.

Unfortunately, matters can still turn ugly in Gambia. Jammeh may yet cause mayhem. However, he is unlikely to prevail in the longer run. ECOWAS leaders will not want to lose face, and in the mid-term, they can force him out, probably even without using force. Senegal could close the borders. Gambia is a small country and entirely surrounded by Senegal. Senegal’s President Macky Sall should be encouraged to take stringent action by the mere fact that he is supported by unanimous consensus of ECOWAS leaders – and, perhaps even more important, the majority of voters in Gambia.

P.S.: Bolivian President Evo Morales should heed the West African lesson too. He is apparently planning to run for another term in office even though his country’s constitution does not permit it – and the majority of voters declined to change that clause in a recent referendum. Morales has served his country well, promoting the rights of indigenous peoples and reducing social inequality. Causing a constitutional crisis would undermine his legacy. After all, he himself was the leader who brought about Bolivia’s constitution which declares the country to be a “plurinational state” and defines democratic norms, including term limits.

Related Articles


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.