Small country, model gains in Africa

Gambia’s democratic gains top a new index of Africa’s progress in building societies based on justice and equality.

A supporter of Gambian President Adama Barrow celebrates his reelection victory in 2021.

Gambia is a sliver of land, the smallest on the African continent. Its total population is less than half that of Johannesburg. But the West African nation just received some big recognition. According to the latest Ibrahim Index of African Governance, it made the greatest improvement in overall governance from 2012 to 2021. This is both notable and instructive for the other 53 African nations.

Gambia started its transition to democracy just six years ago, after 22 years of brutal dictatorship. Its fledgling transition offers a case study in how societies achieve stability and growth by practicing values such as equality, transparency, justice, and respect for individual freedom. As a small-business owner named Lamin Marong put it to the Monitor before the 2021 presidential elections – the first since the end of autocratic rule – Gambians at long last had “no fear, no threats. We are free.”

A composite of 81 indicators, the Ibrahim Index offers a granular and tempered view of governance in Africa. Sponsored by the London-based Mo Ibrahim Foundation, it notes that “much of Africa is less safe, secure and democratic than in 2012.” Security and rule of law have deteriorated due to military coups, a civil war in Ethiopia (which may now be ending), restrictive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change.

But other indicators are up, including equality for women, expansion of digital infrastructure, better air and water quality, and improved health care and education. These gains continued despite the continent’s unique exposure to external crises like the grain shortage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The index found that overall governance improved in 35 of 54 African countries during the past decade, affecting more than half of the continent’s peoples.

Gambia is by no means the continent’s ideal of good governance. It ranks 16th on the Ibrahim Index, and 102nd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception rankings. According to the polling project Afrobarometer, just 22% of young Gambians say the government is creating enough economic opportunity for them.

Yet the country was rated the fifth happiest in Africa by the 2022 World Happiness Report. The annual index, sponsored by Columbia University and the London School of Economics, among others, measures factors like national economic performance, individual freedom to make choices, generosity, and perceptions about corruption.

The country’s democratic transition started in 2017 when an opposition leader named Adama Barrow unexpectedly defeated longtime autocrat Yahya Jammeh at the polls. When Mr. Jammeh tried to retain power, other West African leaders intervened.

Since then, Mr. Barrow has sought to uproot corruption from the police forces, encourage civil society participation in public policy, and expand rights for women. In 2017, his government set up a truth and reconciliation commission to hear victims’ accounts of human rights abuses committed during Mr. Jammeh’s dictatorship. The Swedish Varieties of Democracy Institute named Gambia one of the world’s top 10 democratizers in 2022.

“As leaders,” Mr. Barrow told the United Nations in 2018, “we have the shared responsibility to promote a world order that prioritizes peace over insecurity; a world order that eliminates the growing inequalities around the world; and a world order that brings us sustainable development.”

His record is not unblemished. But he won easy reelection in 2021 and last year survived an attempted coup d’état. That record, the Ibrahim Index found, is worth noting. Just as notable is that Gambians feel they are being heard.

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