The Gambia: Yahya Jammeh’s exit from power, another step forward for Africa’s democratic maturity?

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On the 21st of January, 2017, 22 years after he seized power in a coup, The Gambia’s ex-president, Yahya Jammeh, flew out of Gambia into exile. This is no doubt another giant step towards Africa’s political and economic stability. Jammeh had earlier conceded defeat to Adama Barrow, his challenger at the polls following the country’s December 1st election, but later changed his mind, triggering weeks of tension.

Growing up under military dictatorships in Nigeria in the 1980s, coups, counter-coups, human-rights abuses, and conflicts were the order of the day in the country and across other African countries. Military and civilian dictatorships were the conventional forms of governance across the continent. Soldiers were treated as gods and greatly feared. The dream of every child was to become a soldier. Soldiers occupied the highest station in society back then, outside of politics. At one time in secondary school, we were asked to write an essay about our dream career. One of my classmates, wrote that his future dream career was to become a major general. Why a major general, our English language teacher asked him. So that I could become a minister, he answered.


The 1990s in Africa was a brutal period. Then, the continent experienced more wars than anywhere else in the world. It was particularly hellish in the West African countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone. The First Liberian Civil War of 19891997 claimed more than 600,000 lives; thousands were maimed and tens of thousands became refugees dispersed across the globe. The Sierra Leone Civil War lasted for over a decade and claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people. The 1990s also witnessed one of the most gruesome incidents in human history – the Rwandan genocide – a mass slaughter of almost one million Tutsi in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority during a 100-day period from April to mid-July 1994.

At the turn of the century, after decades of dictatorships and bloodshed, many African countries embraced multi-party democracy. For example, Ghana embraced multi-party democracy in 1992, and has since been successfully transferring power from government to government ever since.

Africans’ tolerance for dictatorship is also waning. Yahya Jammeh’s fate seems to be part of an emerging trend in Africa, after a similar incident in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 led to the ouster of Laurent Gbagbo and a takeover by the current president, Alassane Quattara. While Jammeh stepped down before a violent confrontation with regional forces from Senegal and Nigeria began, Gbagbo refused to step down, despite pleas from African and world leaders. He only relinquished power when he was arrested by French-led troops.

On October 31 2014, the former president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, fled the nation after days of public protest at his attempt to change the constitution to continue his 27-year grip on power. An opposition spokesman, Pargui Emile Paré, likened the removal of Compaoré to the Arab Spring, in which protesters constituted mainly of youths, ousted dictators such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.

In December 2015, the Burkinabe elected a new president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, in an election considered free and democratic by international observers. It is worth mentioning that the democratic progress in Burkina Faso has been initiated by youths who were fed up with the status quo. The 2014 Burkina Faso ‘revolution’ could be regarded as an awakening in which the masses realised that, with coordination, they could depose their oppressive leaders.

The Nigerian election of 2015, which saw a ruling party hand over power peacefully for the first time, signalled a new dawn in Nigeria as well. Throughout the electoral process, civil society organisations and youths remained watchful and monitored the election. Social media mediums such as Facebook and Twitter facilitated monitoring and mobilisation surrounding the election. Professor Attahiru Jega, then the head of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Nigeria’s electoral body set up to conduct elections in Nigeria, was praised by both national and international communities for overseeing a credible election.

The unthinkable happened before the result of the election was officially announced. The defeated incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), telephoned his victorious opponent Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and congratulated him. The crucial role that the Nigerian civil society, aided by popular social media platforms, played in the successful transition of power is also very noticeable in the Gambian scenario.

As a result of the above successes, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has become highly activist in its approach to enabling democratic transition in the region. Its readiness to intervene militarily in Gambia, backed by the African Union and UN left Yahya Jammeh little option but to negotiate a hasty exit, although not before looting the nation’s treasury dry.

The victory of newly inaugurated President Adama Barrow, a relatively unknown property developer, and the eventual exit of Yahya Jammeh, after 22 years of dictatorship is not only a victory for the Gambians. It is also a victory for the rest of Africa. It sends a signal to the few dictators left in Africa, including Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi who is illegally serving a third term, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea that they are a dying breed in Africa. According to the Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, the exit of Yahya Jammeh from power indicate “that there was no more room for ‘tyrants’ and ‘dictators’ in Africa”

Written by Femi Akomolafe, Research Associate at NIAS and author of the book Black Damage; why Africa and its diasporas are plagued with poverty, conflicts and crime, and the ways forward.