There were so many world events grabbing our attention recently that most ignored the drama accompanying the transfer of power in the Gambia. A former English colony, the Gambia is a sliver that occupies both sides of the Gambia river in the middle of Senegal, a former French colony, in West Africa. Briefly, President Yahya Jammeh lost his re-election in December 2016 after 22 years in office. He initially agreed to hand over power to the winner, Adama Barrow, but changed his mind and began questioning the result.
Barrow withdrew to Dakar, capital of Senegal, and was sworn in there by the president of the Gambian Bar Association in the nation’s embassy. The regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) meanwhile swung into action, sent in troops to the Gambia to maintain law and order, and began negotiating with Jammeh. Finally, a deal was reached which allowed him to exit to Equatorial Guinea and Barrow took charge early this year.
Many Gambians objected to the deal with Jammeh which they believed allowed him to keep his ill-gotten wealth and provided him immunity from prosecution. However, what is unusual about the whole affair is that it showed a regional solution to a problem that in other parts of Africa has led to prolonged civil wars. Moreover, it shows the clout of Ecowas, initially an economic group, now extending its influence in non-economic areas too. Formed in 1975, the group began with trade and economic cooperation as its objectives, although regional integration was one of its goals.
History provides few examples of regional groups enforcing their mandate on a recalcitrant member state. Ecowas’s previous messy efforts were in 1990 in Liberia and then again in Sierra Leone in 1997. It seems to be gradually perfecting this role.
At a time when the EU is showing instability, this other regional group is providing examples of what it takes to cooperate. Much like the EU, it has a parliament, allows free movement of people, and the right of residence for its people in any member country. This, when hardly two decades ago, member states were expelling immigrants from neighbours as causing damage to their countries.
Ecowas is also working towards a currency union and here should take some caution from the EU. Like the EU membership, there is a wide range of economies in this group. The GDP of the largest, Nigeria, is more than three times all the others put together. The Euro Zone is facing problems dealing with a currency union when strong and weak economies share a common currency. (French West Africa has shared a currency that predates the formation of Ecowas.)
Among its founding principles are terms such as “interdependence of member states”, “regional stability”, and “consolidation of a democratic system of governance in member states”. This is very different from the standard phraseology of non-interference in member states. It must be these guidelines that allowed Ecowas to send troops into the Gambia and ensure that the results of the election were honoured. And that it was done without spilling any blood is unusual, not just for Africa but for anywhere. Perhaps the movers of Saarc will study the Ecowas model and see if there are any lessons to be learned.
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston