Gambia: Yahya Jammeh and the ECOWAS’ R2P

Following failed shuttle-mediation, troops contributed by some ECOWAS countries are in a ‘show of force’, threatening to use it if (ex) President Yahya Jammeh does not end his over-stay in office as Gambian head of state and allow (new) President Adama Barrow to take over after his ‘exiled’ swearing-in as new president.

Image Source: BBC

This news has been met with mixed feelings across the continent. Whilst some citizens of troop-contributing-countries support the action as a good indication of Africa’s assertiveness to deter impunity on the continent, others feel that it is an unnecessary gamble with the lives of foreign troops and a huge risk for the peace in the region, country and even the lives of Gambians living in Gambia. This article analyses why the ECOWAS’ show of force (and possible use of it) is necessary under the current international provision of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The R2P is founded in the Outcome document of the 2005 United Nations World Summit with two main issues in focus: sovereignty and serious human rights violations. It argues that the state has the primary sovereign responsibility to the welfare of its people but in the case that it fails, sovereignty no longer exclusively protects states from foreign interference to get the state to perform this function of protecting its people.

Before I develop this analysis further, an argument could be made that the situation in Gambia currently does not fit into the R2P scenario (and that would be a technically correct argument); but what if we pay attention to the debate that connects human rights to good governance? Then it would be plausible to infer how the R2P subtly influences the decision by ECOWAS to go beyond diplomacy (if it fails) to threaten to defy the supposed Gambian ‘sovereignty’.

In other words, this article argues that an administration’s violation of the rights of its people to good democratic governance, could be rationalised as serious a  human rights violation as genocide; and that, this could get other states beginning to think about their responsibility to protect under international law. After all, good governance is the foundation of the protection of the basics of human rights.

Since the Gambian impasse begun, Mr. Jammeh and his spokespersons, have been brandishing the ‘sovereignty’ wand in an attempt to delegitimise the ‘un-invited’ interference of ECOWAS agents. This same sovereignty defence has been used in the past by the Jammeh regime to diffuse past allegations of human rights abuses against it, including its threat to withdraw from the ICC. Whilst I do have my own reservations about the selective justice of these human rights campaigners, I argue in this particular case, that the refusal of the Jammeh administration to hand over power following their defeat at the polls, passes to be a serious violation of the right of Gambians to good governance defined through democratic elections and therefore these violations deserve the most robust response possible from the R2P perspective.

Besides the fact that ECOWAS’ military action is mandated under article 5 clause 3 and article 58 clause 2 of its 1993 revised treaty, it is also a continuation of the long-standing tradition of the ECOWAS to proactively deal with regional threats before they get out of hand; like in the cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone. The 2011 case of Ivory Coast may have been a dent on this reputation, but it seems to me that ECOWAS wants to make amends with this case of the Gambia; to deal with the issue before we have a possible genocide on our hands. This is because, in spite of the call by Mr. Barrow to Gambians (including the security agencies) to re-direct their loyalty to him, Mr. Jammeh is believed to still have the support of some key sections of the Gambian citizenry and some of the key security figures who have pledged allegiance to him.

It is therefore not far-fetched to fear, that if there is no quick and decisive intervention, we could be heading for a clash of opposing supporters on the streets of the Gambia and this scenario could lead to a huge loss of lives. Coupling this with the ongoing mass exodus of refugees from the Gambia into neighbouring countries, ECOWAS’ ‘responsibility to protect’ becomes even more salient and relevant.

In the league of good democratic governance practices in Africa, it is arguable to put West-Africa in the lead, and my opinion is that this success is pinned on two main reasons. First, the good examples being set by others in the region is having a demonstrative effect on others; and second, because of the strong muscle that ECOWAS has used in intervening in such matters since the 1980s and 1990s. The current case of the Gambia strongly challenges this trend and I can understand why members of the ECOWAS bloc feel they have a collegial responsibility not only to protect the right of the Gambian people to good governance, but also to protect their image as a responsive community of states.

In conclusion, I want to re-state that I do not argue that, what we are seeing is the R2P in effect, but rather that the global R2P climate is given more impetus to the actions currently being taken by ECOWAS. As I write, ECOWAS has decided to freeze the troop deployment to allow for last minute mediation efforts. It is possible that the concerns about the sour-taste of the military action may have motivated this decision and I think it is a wise one under both ECOWAS and UN law. However, in the case that these last minute efforts fail and ECOWAS decides to deploy its troops unto Gambian soil, my opinion is that it would have a justification, not only under its own treaty (of which the Gambia is a party) but also in view of the current global inclination towards the philosophy of the R2P.

Dennis Penu

Dennis Penu

Staff Writer at InPRA
Dennis Penu is a Ghanaian, and a Principal Research Assistant with the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He holds an advanced master's degree in Governance and Development studies from the University of Antwerp in Belgium and a research master’s degree in Peace and Development Studies from the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.
Dennis Penu

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  1. […] military action was justifiable. I call it the ECOWAS’ R2P, and you can read my analysis in this link as published by the Initiative for Policy Research and Analysis […]