Okeoma Ibe: Why ECOWAS must not relent in showing Jammeh out

by Okeoma Ibe

There are several reasons why the West African regional grouping ECOWAS should not allow Yahyah Jammeh to stay in office beyond January 19, but three stand out – a bad precedent, violation of the will of the majority of the Gambian people and violation of regional norms and standards.

Gambian dictator, Yahya Jammeh, has been in power for nearly 23 years. As a 29-year-old army officer, he overthrew the country’s first president, Dawda Jawara, in a bloodless coup on July 22, 1994. In 1996, he won the first of four successive elections to serve as president of the republic. Had he won the December 1, 2016 elections, he would have been elected for a record fifth term. He lost. In a commendable but largely unexpected move, Jammeh announced on national television that he would support President-elect Adama Barrow, a former real estate agent who won the election. Then acting true to type, he did a volte-face – rejected the results and sought to reconstitute the electoral commission he appointed in the first place.

West Africa’s economic and political bloc, ECOWAS, decided to send a two-member mediation team led by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari to resolve the lingering crisis. At the time of this writing, they had not managed to convince Jammeh to do the right thing. Meantime, the outgoing president – now apparently an advocate of rule of law – has decided to approach the Supreme Court to nullify the vote and prevent the planned inauguration of Adama on January 19.

There are several reasons why ECOWAS should not allow Jammeh to stay in office beyond January 19 but I will stick with three – bad precedent, violation of the will of majority of the Gambian people and violation of regional norms and standards. Let me begin with the first – bad precedent.

Recent elections in Ghana and Nigeria demonstrate that it is possible for incumbents to lose elections in free and fair contests. In both instances, the incumbent simply bowed to the will of the people and turned over power. Ghana learned from Nigeria. A couple of African states have been experimenting with the idea of removal of term limits. Since 1998, about 30 states attempted to do this. Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba and Malawi’s Bakili Mulizi failed while Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and, most recently, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza succeeded after weeks of – to use Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s phrase – “sorrow, tears and blood.” My point is – whether good or bad, leaders in Africa tend to copy one another. Allowing Jammeh to remain in power beyond January 19 will send a message to others that it is okay to override the decision of properly constituted election management bodies and then proceed to reap from such decisions. That would be bad for democracy and Africa.

Closely connected to the point immediately above is the fact that a President Jammeh beyond January 19 clearly violates the will of majority of the people of The Gambia. Regardless of how he feels about the outcome of the vote, Yahya Jammeh has to be told in clear terms that democracy is about the will of the majority. Given his previous comments about his “divine authority” to rule for a “billion years,” it does appear that he probably feels entitled to lead his people regardless of what they think. It bears recalling that Jammeh was one of two West African leaders that opposed the idea of restricting presidents within the region to two terms in office in 2015. Their opposition meant that ECOWAS did not proceed with that idea.

Finally, keeping Jammeh in power beyond January 19 violates the AU African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance to which his country is a signatory. Among other things, the Charter seeks to “promote adherence by each state party to the universal values and principles of democracy and respect for human rights.” Article 23 of this Charter specifically defines “unconstitutional change of government” to include “any refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party or candidate after free, fair and regular elections.”

Closer to home, Protocol A/SP1/12/01 on Democracy and Good Governance Supplementary to the Protocol Relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security to which 15 heads of state, including Yahya Jammeh, signed off in 2001 specifically prescribes “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means.” It also requires candidates who lose elections to concede defeat (article 9).

ECOWAS has a responsibility to keep a precedent it clearly established in the case of Cote d’Ivoire. As readers may recall, Alassane Quatarra won that country’s second round presidential elections in 2010. In an interesting twist, the Constitutional Court led by incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo’s ally cancelled the results in many areas in which Quatarra had won thereby handing power back to Gbagbo. ECOWAS rejected this decision and even rejected a power-sharing deal brokered by the African Union. The Gambia case merits similar treatment. Happily, this time, the African Union appears to be in support of ECOWAS – its Peace and Security Council decided on January 13 not to recognise Jammeh as President of the Gambia from 19 January.

I hope this stands.

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Okeoma Ibe is a lawyer and gender expert from Nigeria. Until recently, she was a member of the steering committee of West African Think-Tank (WATHI).

This article was first published on Pambazuka News

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