Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate his inauguration at Gambia’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal on January 19 2017. Picture: REUTERS
Supporters of president-elect Adama Barrow celebrate his inauguration at Gambia’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal on January 19 2017. Picture: REUTERS

The Gambia didn’t have a dictatorship as such, but the incumbency of former president Yahya Jammeh, who originally took power in a coup 22 years ago, became increasingly authoritarian and brutal as Jammeh clung to power in the face of rising levels of opposition.

When he was unexpectedly defeated by opposition challenger Adama Barrow in December’s election, despite his efforts to rig the vote, it seemed an exciting victory for democracy and constitutionalism in the small West African state.

But not long after, Jammeh publicly conceded defeat to Barrow, he rescinded the concession, launching a court challenge to the election result. He then declared a state of emergency last week, just two days before Barrow was due to be inaugurated.

It seemed to reinforce all the stereotypes about African leaders clinging to power indefinitely, even in supposed democracies. But this story has a happily democratic ending — or so we hope.

Under Sirleaf’s decisive leadership, and with the backing of the AU, Ecowas did what Africa’s regional institutions are supposed to do — it intervened to enforce the democratic decision of The Gambia’s electorate.

New president Barrow, who was inaugurated in neighbouring Senegal on Friday, is set to return to his country this week, while Jammeh has fled to Equatorial Guinea. This comes after regional military forces from five Ecowas countries moved in to secure the country for the new president.

Barrow, an estate agent and businessman who is a political novice, represents seven opposition parties and his arrival will bring hope of a new era for the troubled country.

That is even though it’s now emerged that Jammeh looted The Gambia’s resources on his way out, stealing at least $11m and leaving no money in the public purse.

As it is, The Gambia, whose economy depends mainly on tourism and agriculture, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Real per capita GDP growth from 2004 to 2014 averaged less than 0.5% a year, among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.

The IMF, which bailed it out of a balance-of-payments crisis early in 2016, has warned that its external viability and fiscal sustainability could be at serious risk. Jammeh’s government failed to comply with the conditions the IMF imposed for its assistance and the slide in the country’s economic fortunes has continued.

BMI Research predicts that political stability and economic development in The Gambia will ultimately improve under Barrow’s stewardship.

But he clearly has his work cut out for him and much rebuilding to do. At least he can rely on the support of his neighbours in West Africa, which have acted more assertively and urgently than many had expected in order to ensure a democratic outcome. Ecowas forces are working with the Gambian army to secure the capital and there are calls for them to remain there until stability is assured.

It is a welcome victory for democracy in Africa.

And the approach taken by Ecowas is an example to other parts of the continent. If the Southern African regional institutions were half as assertive, we might not still have Robert Mugabe in power.

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