The Gambia: A lesson to African dictators
Since embattled President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia feed on self exile three weeks ago, well meaning people have been calling on other sit-tight dictators in Africa and elsewhere in the world to learn a lesson from his fall. The call is addressed to other despotic and oppressive rulers especially in Africa, who have refused to take a cue from the fate of the late Liberian dictator, Samuel Doe, Laurent Gbagbo and Robert Gue of Ivory Coast, Col Muammar Gadaffi of Libya and, Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, among so many others.
It would be recalled that Jammeh, Head of Gambia’s Army Military Police, who overthrew the democratically elected government of his country in 1994 in a coup d’etat, stayed in power for 22years, getting regularly re-elected through election rigging. He was finally defeated by an opponent, Adama Barrow on December 1, 2016 and conceded defeat after the announcement of results of the landslide victory by the Gambian Electoral Commission.
The crisis started when, on December 9, Jammeh rescinded his earlier concession of defeat, claiming that he had discovered election irregularities. Some believe that this latest action was borne out of fear of political reprisals against him by the opposition. Jammeh went ahead to declare a state of emergency and to pressurize the parliament to extend his rule by three months. As expected, this did not go down well with the international community which was outraged by his action.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) warned that it would not accept that, while the African Union (AU), European Union (EU) and the United Nations all spoiled for a show down against Jammeh, warning him of the serious consequences of his refusal to accept the will of the Gambian people as expressed on December 1, 2016 with their ballots. It took the unrelenting diplomatic efforts of six African Presidents and a credible threat of military action as they mobilized their troops, for Jammeh to surrender power and fled to Senigal on self exile.
The pertinent question that arises: “Why don’t African leaders want to leave office? Why is it only in Africa that leader after exhausting their tenure, use all sorts of tricks to manipulate the electoral process and out of greed perpetuate themselves in office till death? The answer is that they have not actually embraced democracy, as they believe in the winner takes it all. In recent times, it is only former President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Dr. John Mahatma of Ghana and Joyce Banda of Malawi, and a few others that willingly conceded defeat, knowing too well that life could still be enjoyed after Presidential Palace. Such sit-tight rulers are not after rendering of service to their people but seek office with selfish intention. That is why they surround themselves with sycophants and hangers on who confuse democracy with autocracy for the simple reason that their master controls power, money, and the armed forces. Why would a dictator wish to quit office when there are skeletons in his cupboard?
African leaders must learn to concede defeat if they want their countries to develop. Whoever loses at an election should be prepared to hands off power, while any attempt by him to change the rules midfield should be resisted by patriotic citizens. We commend the ECOWAS for its diplomatic efforts at brokering the understand which led to the eventual exit of Jammeh. In exchange for peaceful transfer of power to the new President, he received guarantees of a secure retirement with full benefits of a citizen, a party leader and a former head of state.
Gambia set an important precedent for other authoritarian rulers, who continue to be in power long after losing popular support due to their uncertain future. Gambian’s experience shows that if such rulers allow a free and fair election, thus sparing their countries the agony of a violent transition their secure future could be negotiated afterwards. Another lesson for countries with authoritarian rulers, is that they should forge unity during elections, and also prepare to use regional and international bodies for a negotiated exit guaranteeing peaceful power transfer.