A Reminder to Dictators: Lessons from the Gambia

In the wake of the regime change in the Gambia earlier this year, MIA student Julian Lang draws the necessary conclusions and shows why the toppling of former president Yahya Jammeh is reflective of a wider political development on the African continent which should not be ignored.

In a 2011 BBC interview, the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh proudly declared “If I have to rule this country for one billion years, I will.” Six years later, on January 21st, 2017, that billion year reign was cut abruptly short as its ruler left the country in exile. The nature of his sudden departure not only highlights lessons that the West can take from African institutions, but also serves as a reminder to those with authoritarian aspirations.

Until 1994, the Gambia had been a flawed-but-young democracy, led by its popular-but-ageing incumbent president, when the young Lt. Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup. At the time, this likely did not seem out of the ordinary to an outside observer—in the previous president’s 24-year tenure, 14 other countries in Africa experienced a cumulative 35 successful coups. The behaviour of the post-coup government was equally unsurprising, featuring all the classics of an authoritarian crackdown: from violent responses to protests to armed intimidation of voters, journalists and opposition candidates.

Through the use of repression against a divided opposition, Jammeh would go on to win four terms as president of the Gambia, revealing more eccentricities with each victory. The final decade of his presidency featured the revelation of his magical cures for AIDS and infertility, the kidnapping and forced drugging of hundreds accused of witchcraft, the deaths of several children run over by his stretch Hummer motorcade, and the apparent claim to immortality featured at the start of this article.

When the 2016 election saw the opposition parties unite behind Adama Barrow, a real estate agent that called out Jammeh for being a “soulless dictator,” Gambians expected more unsurprising repression. Instead, the political outsider bested the Billion-Year-President’s vote count by nearly 4%. Though initially Jammeh conceded defeat, within a week he had second thoughts and rejected the outcome, calling for new elections under a “God-fearing and independent electoral commission.” This sparked outrage not only in the domestic opposition, but in the international community, rapidly escalating the crisis.

The day before the United States inaugurated its 45th president, Adama Barrow was sworn in as the Gambia’s new president while taking refuge in neighbouring Senegal. That same day the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) began UN sanctioned military operations against the Jammeh government, with troops from Senegal, Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, and Mali entering Gambian territory with little resistance. Already, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had reported up to 26,000 refugees fleeing the country to Senegal since the election. The following day, ECOWAS troops halted their advance on the Gambian capitol as mediators tried to convince Jammeh to step down in the face of overwhelming force. One deadline passed, then a second, before finally a settlement was reached, and Jammeh’s 22-year-long presidency came to an end.

As interesting as this story is, it begs the question: why should anybody in the West care? After all, the Gambia has a smaller population than Chicago, and most people couldn’t even find it on a map. Stories from Africa, and the developing world as a whole, are frequently ignored this way – yet there are lessons to be learned there regardless.

First, African institutions and developments should not be ignored. Europe’s neighbour is often stereotyped as a heap of corrupt authoritarian states, crippled by ethnic rivalries and limited resources. There are kernels of truth from which this accusation stems: ECOWAS, and the African Union as a whole are not nearly as integrated politically or economically as the European Union, nor do their members meet the standards of democracy of which EU members claim to be shining of examples.

Yet in one regard, the African Union has surpassed all of its counterparts – the role of intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. The AU is the only regional or international organisation which has officially codified the right to militarily intervene in another state on humanitarian grounds, going against the sacrosanct norm of nonintervention established in the UN Charter. Where other democracies have shied away from the subject of intervention in recent years, African states have rose to the challenge – the ECOWAS intervention to protect Gambian democracy is only the latest of many. The African Union has had a leading role in Peacekeeping operations in Darfur since 2003, played a crucial role in Burundi peacekeeping operations from 2003-2004, and launched a successful military intervention against Comorian separatists in 2008. Not all of these military interventions have been smooth sailing, with lack of manpower seriously crippling the 2007 operations in Somalia. However, considering the serious economic, developmental and security challenges Africa faces, these operations were surprisingly successful – particularly when compared to some of the West’s recent military interventions.

The West must realise that it is not the sole protector of the liberal democratic order. While the EU and the US certainly remain the more powerful and united actors on the global stage, the anti-globalist backlash they are currently undergoing is by no means a death knell for the norms of the current world order. In spite of their own democratic deficits, African states have proven that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to protecting and ensuring democracy in their local neighbourhood. The Gambia’s new president is now reversing the country’s previous plans to leave the International Criminal Court and the Commonwealth, showing that the backlash to these programs is not universal.

Events in the Gambia should also serve as a reminder to dictators, and to world leaders in general. After 22 years in the grip of a madman and under the watch of one of the most feared intelligence services in Africa, Gambians now have cause for hope. Plenty of challenges still await the country and its new president, but if the story of the rise and fall of Yahya Jammeh has any moral it is this: no matter how assured your reign may be, no matter how much control you think you have, even a billion-year presidency must come to an end one day.


Julian Lang is a class of 2018 Masters of International Affairs Student at the Hertie School of Governance. He has a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from the University of Delaware and has interests in Security Policy and Human Rights. He is a host on the DeFacto Podcast, a member of the Hertie Social Impact Collaborative, and founded the Hertie Laughter Improv comedy group. He speaks German, English, some Arabic, and some Spanish. You can find out more about him at www.julianrlang.com