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Africa’s object lesson in democracy

Shift in thought

A postelection crisis in Gambia has stirred the country’s neighbors to intervene, sign of a stronger commitment to democracy in Africa.

Gambia President, Yahya Jammeh, left, speaks with Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari, upon the latter's arrival in Banjul Gambia, Jan.13.
AP Photo | Caption
  • By the Monitor's Editorial Board

When a group of African nations stands up to a dictator, the world should take notice – perhaps a lesson about democracy has taken root on the continent. That seems to be the case involving Gambia, one of Africa’s tiniest nations but one whose current political drama has the potential for big meaning.

Gambia held an election on Dec. 1 and its longtime ruler, President Yahya Jammeh, surprisingly lost the vote. At first he conceded to his opponent. But then he had second thoughts. Mr. Jammeh demolished the electoral commission, clamped down on dissent over social media, and extended his rule.

But he did not count on one thing.

Four of Gambia’s neighboring states in West Africa – Senegal, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Liberia – have each learned from hard experience from past leaders who failed to follow the will of the people and did not hand over power peacefully. Violence was the result. These nations are now leading an effort to oust Jammeh and install the winner of the election, Adama Barrow.

At first this group tried diplomacy. Its leaders, who represent the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, met twice with Jammeh to persuade him to step down. When that failed, they decided to prepare a military invasion and asked the United Nations Security Council for approval.

One of democracy’s basic cornerstones – a peaceful transfer of power after a fair election – really means something to Gambia’s neighbors. In fact, more than two-thirds of Africans prefer democracy, according to a poll by Afrobarometer. Africans “have more than our fair share of brave, determined, principled, stubborn, wily citizens who will keep us from sinking too far into the mire,” writes journalist Simon Allison in the African Arguments website.

In Gambia itself, people showed unusual courage in voting against Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 coup. Since his electoral defeat, many of his key ministers have fled rather than remain loyal.

At least in West Africa, such dictators are becoming more isolated. In other parts of Africa, such as in Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Congo, leaders still overstay their welcome without much repercussion from other African states.

Democracy has had a bumpy path in Africa. But the lesson from the Gambia crisis shows it may have a brighter future.