Last year was perhaps the most electorally-charged year in West Africa’s nearly six decades of independence. Numerous local, legislative and national elections were held peacefully and conclusively in no fewer than seven states: Benin, Cape Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea and Niger. Breaking with the cycle of violent coups-d’états and state captures, the region has finally embarked on a new path of political aggiornamento based on the principle of free, fair and transparent elections.
More than a simple episode, this new era of democratic experimentations in West Africa symbolises an awakening for both leaders and citizens of the region. The latter now firmly believe that real socioeconomic development can only be achieved if the preconditions of good governance and respect of civil rights are fulfilled. The road to a fully democratic West Africa remains long and perhaps tortuous. However, the recent achievements by the countries of the region in enforcing the respect of the electoral processes and in ensuring smooth and peaceful transitions cannot be underestimated.
From Abuja to Banjul, from Accra to Ouagadougou, a profound enthusiasm driven by a real perception of history on the making is everywhere perceptible. The citizens of the region are no longer satisfied with the outdated status quo of political gridlocks and economic stagnations. The rest of the world is duty-bound to encourage and support the region in its renewed efforts to make the respect of the rule of law, the consolidation of free, fair and transparent elections, and the normalisation of peaceful political transitions everyday realities.
Gambia case study
With the exception of few skirmishes, the last ten presidential elections in West Africa were all peaceful and inclusive. The latest one took place in The Gambia, on 1 December 2016 and offers a concrete example of how through a good blend of a robust and proactive diplomacy and a credible legally-backed military threat, the volatile and risky post-electoral transitions could be dealt with on the continent as a whole.
The Gambia is the smallest mainland country in Africa, with a total landmass of 10,689 square kilometres. A former British protectorate, the country gained its independence in 1965 and continued to be ruled by the same despot until his demise by a bloodless military coup in 1994. The coup initially brought about a period of burgeoning democratic expectations, which were short-lived unfortunately.
What followed was more than two decades of dictatorship and erratic leadership. The country slowly but surely became more isolated with ever-shrinking standards of living for its nearly 2 million people. Finally, thanks to the combined pressure of the international community and the African Union, the incumbent Yayah Jammeh’s 23-year rule was successfully challenged by Adama Barrow, the leader of the opposition’s Independent Coalition of Parties.
However, in a move often too familiar in Africa, the incumbent refused to step down, despite his overwhelming defeat, raising fears of a serious political meltdown. Against the backdrop of a looming crisis, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to act on two fronts: a diplomatic one first closely followed by a military buildup. A frenetic period of intense diplomatic activities saw the heads of state from Guinea, Liberia and Mauritania together with the United Nations’ envoy in the region negotiating with the outgoing regime on behalf of the ECOWAS and the African Union.
In parallel, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed Resolution 2337, expressing support for the ECOWAS’s efforts to negotiate the transition of the presidency. Meanwhile, a strong military coalition of 4,000 troops from Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo, under the umbrella of the ECOWAS Mission in the Gambia (ECOMIG) massed at the border. Ultimately, on 20 January 2017, the incumbent Yayah Jammeh agreed to step down, before going into exile in Equatorial Guinea.
The management by the ECOWAS of the Gambian post-electoral crisis is both a testimony by the regional leaders that no rollback would be acceptable anymore and a clear success for what has been referred to before as ‘preventive diplomacy’. Today, and for the first time in the region’s history, all the heads of state of the 16 West African countries were elected through a certain form of democratic process.
Reform or regress
With chronic poverty and mass youth unemployment, West African leaders would be wrong however to rest on their laurels. History teaches us that democratic achievements are reversible and that political conquests cannot be taken for granted. The priority for regional governments must be to ensure lasting economic growth with the ultimate objective of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Yet economic momentum will stall without deeper regional integration and major structural reforms (like diversifying the economy, upgrading exports, improving financial development, and increasing general productivity). Failure on these fronts could bring the entire region full circle: back to the sociopolitical unrest of recent years.
The Gambian example, however, shows that the continent is able to move forward and that ‘African solutions to African challenges’ is more than a simple slogan. Beyond West Africa, ECOWAS’s preventive diplomacy in the Gambia may provide a template for post-electoral disputes across the continent — or even the rest of the world.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe