His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh Babili Mansa has finally fled The Gambia on exile in Senegal, with a reported $11m loot in tow. Nevertheless, the world celebrates.
This victory, achieved by a coalition of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), United Nations (UN), and an 800-strong military delegation from Nigeria, has irreparably set a precedent for African diplomacy – democracy by any means. As the world celebrates this African democratic victory, it is worth taking a closer look at the events that have unfolded in The Gambia.
Gambians and The Gambia
The Gambia could easily be a state in Nigeria. A population of 1.9 million people would rank it 35th out of 37 states in Nigeria, and the country's standing army consists of just 900 soldiers. Smaller than Ebonyi State alone, it is sandwiched between Senegal and The Atlantic Ocean. Tourism is a major driver of the economy, with a steady influx of Westerners, particularly Britons, visiting for its famed beaches.
But behind the tourist appeal hides a country with a third of its population below the poverty line. Arguably, this lies at the feet of its recently exiled leader, Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a coup in 1994 and then returned via the ballot box to win four successive elections between 1996 and 2011. In the 22-year span Jammeh ruled The Gambia, Nigeria had six different Heads of State.
So how has this country, so small and distant from our shores, become such a strong barometer of African foreign policy?
Adama Barrow, the declared winner of the December 2016 Gambian Presidential Election, was sworn in as President of the Islamic Republic of The Gambia at the Gambian Embassy in Senegal. In an effort to recognise the will of the Gambian people, regional and international support poured in from nations keen to support a peaceful political transition. Inevitably, certain liberties were taken during the fallout.
Adama Barrow declared himself 'inaugurated' by holding a ceremony at the Gambian Embassy in Senegal. In doing so, he was playing to the popular myth that embassies represent the soil of their designated countries. According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, this is untrue. While special privileges like immunity from laws exist in relation to embassies, they do not actually constitute part of the country represented by the embassy. So while a baby born in an embassy is not a national of that state, Adama Barrow was not sworn-in as Gambian President on Gambian soil.
Additionally, after Adama Barrow won the Presidential elections and was declared President-Elect, Jammeh conceded, before reversing his position. After failed mediations by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President Buhari, and Former Ghanaian President Mahama, Jammeh secured parliamentary approval to extend his term by 90-days as he declared a state of emergency.
Arguably, Gambian law may have enabled Jammeh to temporarily retain power. Chapter VI, Part 63, Article 6 of the Gambian Constitution, states that ‘where the life of the National Assembly is extended for any period in accordance with section 99 (2), the term of office of the President shall be extended for the same period’. To support that the life of the National Assembly was indeed extended, Chapter VII, Part 2, Article 2 of the same document reads ‘At any time when The Gambia is at war or a state of emergency is declared, the National Assembly may, by resolution supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the members, extend the life of the National Assembly for not more than three months at a time, but the life of the National Assembly shall not be extended under this subsection for more than a total period of one year’.
Unfortunately, legal technicalities do not always achieve the overriding aim of upholding the mandate bestowed by the people, one of the fundamental pillars of any constitution. Yet it is important that due process is always followed, that the law always wins the day, and military threats from regional powers do not serve as the basis of any presidential mandate. Political order requires constitutionality to survive.
Interestingly, some of the Judges asked to sit to consider petitions in relation to the election were Nigerian. In fact, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of The Gambia is Emmanuel Fagbenle – a Nigerian.
Nigerians and The Gambia
President Buhari faces questions from some Nigerians over his interest in Gambian politics given the military challenges closer to home.
Yet again, the response to such questions remains 'political order'.
Political disorder tends to create a domino effect. Between 1963 and 1973, the West African region experienced 11 coup d’etat attempts, with Nigeria accounting for two of them. As neighbouring states watch a nation descend into political chaos, priority shifts to preventing contagion. This is important to prevent assisting countries from falling into the temptation of assuming power in the troubled state.
As such, how ECOWAS (under Nigeria's leadership) have handled The Gambia will set a precedent for similar cases in the future. The threat of invasion was all but enough this time – perhaps because of The Gambia's sparse military resources – and there is no reason it could not have escalated into a proper invasion of sovereign territory. The notion of invading foreign countries is still fairly recent – Cote D’Ivoire was invaded following the Ouattara-Gbagbo scuffle after their 2010 election. At least Nigeria dodged this bullet.
History will be the best judge of regional action taking during the past few weeks. Legality may have made way for morality this time but the political consequences of extensive military pressure and subsequent exile may yet tell a different tale. As Nigerians go back to facing domestic challenges, some may have reason to celebrate. It could be of some comfort to know that, though we may be weak at home, we are strong abroad.
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