Gambia is a minuscule country in West Africa, but anyone who cares about the future of Africa, and indeed the world, needs to pay attention to the recent events unfolding there.
Up until now, to people who had actually heard of it, Gambia was mostly known for being a kind of potpourri of clichés of African dysfunction. The tiny country is landlocked into its bigger neighbor Senegal, and makes no sense as an independent unit, except that it was a British Crown colony inside the French colonial empire. Hugging as it does the bounteous Gambia river, following it to the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean, Gambia features absolutely stunning landscapes. Most of its population lives in crushing poverty, since it has been under dictatorial, kleptocratic rule rule since a 1994 military coup.
All of which makes the events unfolding in the last week so significant. To recap: In December of last year, Gambia held an election, and the incumbent dictator, Yahya Jammeh, lost. Jammeh's response to losing the election was pretty straightforward: After initially accepting the results, he then decided to shrug them off and just stay in power anyway.
But what happened afterwards is pretty stunning. Jammeh's opposition, along with the U.N., and Gambia's neighboring countries, said, "Oh no you don't."
Regional bodies like the African Union and especially the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) almost immediately put pressure on Jammeh to step down. Heavyweights like Nigeria and especially Senegal threatened to send in troops, and eventually made good on those threats. Last Friday, Jammeh finally relented and left the country for an ECOWAS-brokered exile, while his rival, Adama Barrow, who had already been sworn in, was ushered in as leader. This was all done with minimal violence.
This is hugely significant.
Even though democracy and the rule of law have been steadily (albeit often with frustrating slowness and setbacks) improving in Africa since the end of the Cold War, a relatively peaceful transition of power is still an important milestone. For Gambia, this is actually its very first democratic transition — the country experienced one-party authoritarian rule between independence and Jammeh's military coup. That alone is worth noting and celebrating.
But much more significant is how it happened: The country's neighbors reacted with the expectation that norms of peaceful transition of power would be upheld.
This should make anyone hopeful that norms about the rule of law and peaceful transition of power really are taking hold. The time is really, really recent when the exact opposite effect would have prevailed: With most of Africa being ruled by lawless autocrats, a movement for a democratic transition would have been undermined — not supported — by neighbors, since the failure of one democratic transition lessens the pressure on all and helps establish the norm that autocrats can't be challenged. Here, the opposite has occurred.
Senegal, which was semi-authoritarian for decades since independence under the French-sponsored "Françafrique" regime whereby France propped up the regimes in its former colonies in exchange for access to their mineral and strategic resources, and Nigeria, which was ruled by a military junta as recently as 1999, essentially said to Jammeh, "You're not going to accept the results of a democratic election? What are you, crazy?"
Two of the major regional powers of West Africa, one Francophone and one Anglophone, one majority Muslim and one majority Christian, behaved like responsible major stakeholders, and acted through regional bodies to put pressure on a country in their sphere of influence to enforce internationally recognized norms. That is a big, big deal.
Is it the beginning of a glorious new era of democracy for Africa? Probably not. But neither should we undersell what happened here, which is a genuine milestone, and one which can legitimately be seen as the beginning of a new era of increased strength and legitimacy for the kind of norms around rule of law that make good government possible. And that is very, very, very good news.