World Africa First Look

Gambia's ex-president finally steps down – but takes riches with him

Former president Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled Gambia for 22 years, left the country late Saturday, after bowing to international pressure to step down to newly elected Adama Barrow.

Children sit on top of a house gate by the presidential villa in Banjul, Gambia, on Jan. 22, 2017.
Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters | Caption

In what is being hailed as a victory for African democracy, Gambia has avoided bloodshed and begins this week with a new president, following a protracted but ultimately peaceful transition of power.

Following the shock defeat of Yahya Jammeh, the ruler for 22 years, in elections early last month, the situation appeared to balance on a razor's edge. Initially, the authoritarian leader, who had once declared he would rule for “a billion years,” added to the surprise by conceding defeat to Adama Barrow. But in short order, he changed his mind.

Thereafter, as the official end of Mr. Jammeh’s rule approached last week, troops from nearby countries prepared to enter Gambia in defense of the democratic results, and amid a flurry of diplomatic pressure from regional leaders, Jammeh vacated the presidency and left the capital city of Banjul late on Saturday.

The African Union was heavily involved, with Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the organization’s current chair, maintaining a torrent of tweets in support of democracy and the new president-elect. Dr. Zuma declared that a failure in support of the Gambian people would amount to “failing Africa.”

Two weeks ago, a group of leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, and Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, flew to Gambia to engage with Jammeh and persuade him to leave.

When diplomatic pressure seemed ineffective, the bloc determined to take military action to ensure the handover of power, if necessary. In recent days, there were reports of Senegalese troops – whose country entirely surrounds Gambia, aside from a short stretch of coastline – massing on the border.

In the event, a force that included troops not only from Senegal, but also other nations such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali, entered Gambia on Sunday in an effort to secure the transition of power. They met no resistance.

Reports indicate that when Jammeh did eventually leave, he declined to do so empty-handed. In a news conference on Sunday, as Reuters reported, an adviser to the country’s new president, Adama Barrow, said that Jammeh had withdrawn $11.45 million from state coffers over the past two weeks.

Yet many Gambians are celebrating the fact that a transition was enabled without a single shot being fired, contrary to some dire predictions. Moreover, the persistence of the region’s leaders in demanding that the election’s results be respected is being seen by analysts as a testament to Africa’s increasingly successful implementation of democracy.

In nearby Ghana, for example, power recently transitioned with barely a bump; the stark contrast with Gambia’s travails these past weeks is, according to Nic Cheeseman, a professor of African studies at Birmingham University in England, attributable to the “consequences of leaving office.” In Ghana, Dr. Cheeseman told the BBC, presidents often receive “golden handshakes” when they stand down, and there is every chance their party will return to power in a future election. In Gambia, on the other hand, the new president has suggested investigating Jammeh for possible crimes in office.

“Democracies are messy,” Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development’s executive director, told the Financial Times, “but which African countries have imploded because they are democratic?”

“The urge for democracy – for good government – has always been there,” he added. “It is the supply that is lacking.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.