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Democracies are not built overnight. Gambia’s has nonetheless evolved dramatically in 24 hours and at the speed of an advancing army. Courtesy of an intervention force led by troops from Nigeria and neighbouring Senegal, the west African state looked set yesterday to enjoy its first constitutional transfer of power since independence in 1965.
A mix of ballots and the threat of bullets was bringing an end to the 22-year rule of an unhinged autocrat, Yahya Jammeh. Eleventh-hour diplomacy appeared to have dislodged him from his lair a day after his mandate expired and without a shot being fired.
George W Bush’s ill-fated intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan showed how perilous it can be imposing political change through military conquest and occupation. Gambia, by contrast, has underlined both how important the threat of force can be in persuading determined autocrats to pack their bags, and how decisive, in the African context, regional institutions have become in protecting the basic tenets of constitutional democracy.
Mr Jammeh was beaten fair and square in elections in December. But like many African strongmen before him, he refused the verdict of the urns and sought through force and fiat to cling to power. Were it not for the current crop of west African leaders he might have succeeded. A good number of them, however, came to power in elections after spending time in opposition. They have proved more resolute than many of their east, central and southern African counterparts in standing up for democratic gains.
It is arguable that were Mr Jammeh at the helm of a larger country, they would have been more cautious about sending in troops to depose him. The denouement might at least have been more protracted and bloody, as was the case in Ivory Coast in 2011. Gambia is Africa’s smallest mainland state. Nevertheless the drama there has set historic precedents. The most obvious is in the role that soldiers played.
Sub-Saharan Africa has endured more than 200 military coup attempts since independence dawned. Mr Jammeh’s in 1994 was one of the last to prove successful. This time, however, the soldiers marched him out of power.
It is no coincidence that Ecowas, the 15-strong west African trading bloc, is blazing that particular trail. The region was plagued by coups and turmoil in the years after independence. Having suffered the consequences, west Africans are proving more determined in enforcing basic democratic norms. Peer pressure in the region is beginning to work.
By contrast southern Africa has been reluctant to deal effectively with Robert Mugabe’s self-perpetuating rule in Zimbabwe. Last year, Joseph Kabila, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, did not even need to rig or refute elections to overstay his mandate. He merely ensured that voting did not take place.
The state of democracy in Africa remains mixed. In many former autocracies voting has simply added trappings to the de facto continuation of one-party rule where incumbent regimes use patronage, electoral fraud and security forces to maintain a perpetual grip on power.
Change in Africa can be contagious for the better, and the worse, and in a growing number of states elections are not only becoming routine but are also improving the quality of leadership.
Gambia has a chance to join that club under Adama Barrow, its newly sworn-in leader. In ensuring that is the case, Ecowas will have defied the current of global trends in two notable respects: with a victory for interventionism and a validation of the power of regional integration.
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