Democracy on the march in West Africa

The crisis over last month’s disputed election in the tiny West African nation of Gambia (see earlier report here) seems to be reaching its climax. Gambia’s neighbors delivered an ultimatum to defeated president Yahya Jammeh to yield power to the winner, Adama Barrow, by midnight local time (11am today, Melbourne time) or face military intervention.

Jammeh, who initially conceded defeat in the election and then changed his mind, citing “irregularities”, has refused to budge and declared a state of emergency. Gambia’s parliament, controlled by Jammeh’s party, voted to extend his term by three months, supposedly to allow time for the courts to adjudicate on the dispute.

But the other West African countries have had enough. Reports say that troops from Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Ghana are poised to cross the frontier to install Barrow as president.

If they do, they are unlikely to meet much resistance. Gambia’s army chief, Ousman Badjie, has very sensibly refused to defend Jammeh. “We are not going to involve ourselves militarily,” he said. “This is a political dispute.”

So one way or another – whether by direct military effort or some last-minute capitulation – it looks as if democracy will win out in Gambia. And while that’s a good thing in itself, its also a remarkable sign of the progress that has been made in West Africa.

Not so long ago, the region was a patchwork of mostly military regimes and sundry dictatorships. There are still a couple left, but almost all the major states in the region – including those listed as contributing troops to oust Jammeh – are now functioning democracies. More significantly, democracy has become such a norm that the regional organisation, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), is willing to intervene when it is threatened, as it did in Burkina Faso in 2015 and now, perhaps more forcefully, in Gambia.

Democracy is notoriously on the defensive in a number of places, so we sometimes need to remind ourselves that there are still good news stories in the world.

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