Crisis in The Gambia – ECOWAS must take note – You break it, you own it

Saad Barrie

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 17 January 2017

I have never been a fan of President Yayah Jammeh and wouldn’t lose sleep over his fate. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must however be warned that “regime change” is a serious business. Going in is the easy part. But getting out is an art.

The ‘pottery barn’ rule applies. The so-called pottery barn rule was General Colin Powell’s warning to President Gorge W. Bush as he went into Iraq: “You break it, you own it”. Time proved him right.  The European powers, France and UK too, learnt that lesson in Libya.

I hope ECOWAS might have learnt an expensive lesson from its own experience in Sierra Leone in March 1998.

President Kabba’s reinstatement in March 1998, was the antecedent to the January 6, 1999 invasion of Freetown, by the murderous Armed Forces Revolutionary Ruling Council (AFRC) regime they removed to reinstate him.

Thousands of civilians and ECOWAS troops – mostly Nigerians, lost their lives during the brief rebel incursion into Freetown, in a failed attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government a second time.

After that, President Kabba was forced by the international community (including ECOWAS) to negotiate with the rebels – a deal that became one of the worst peace deals in history.

The “known unknown”

Like Saddam and Gaddafi, a desperate Jammeh could play one last card – religion.  “It is the Will of God. And as a Muslim I accept in good faith.” Jammeh said in his concession to President-elect Adama Barrow just after the elections results were declared.

But that was before he changed his mind and claimed to have been cheated in the polls.

Jammeh’s extremist views, demagoguery, propensity for violence and temperamental behavior suggest we should expect him to fight back, in exile or…death (if “martyred”). That is, should the use of force to remove him become inevitable.

One way he could fight back is to open a back door for terrorists to come in. The same back door that citizens of The Gambia have been using in drove, to make the perilous journey to Europe or drown in the Mediterranean Sea trying.

Didn’t he declare his country to be an “Islamic Republic” and himself the “Defender of the Faith”?

One might interpret his Islamist credentials as nominal, mere posturing to attract donors from the Middle East after falling out with the West over withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 2013 and signing a draconian anti-gay legislation in 2014.

However, as friends and allies abandon him within Gambia itself, Jammeh might feel the need to make one final posture to attract new friends abroad.

Al Qaeda’s North and West African offshoot, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in particularly might sense an opportunity here. Neither The Gambia nor Senegal is known for terrorism.

However, The Gambia is a cheap destination for Western tourists – who are the likely target of kidnappings by Al Qaeda. And there is also a potential source of supply of religious fanatics living in extreme poverty in next door Senegal. Senegal is traditionally a strong ally of the West – France and the U.S.

The Libya-Mali nexus should make a good case study for anyone interested in the potential outcome of The Gambia crisis.

What happens to Jammeh’s loyalists in the military, once ECOWAS troops successfully remove him?

For how long would ECOWAS keep troops in The Gambia? Who will foot the bill? All of the region’s national economies are either in crisis or emerging from one.

These are some of the vexing questions regime change proponents fail to adequately answer before sending their armies to a foreign soil. Not in Sierra Leone. Neither in Iraq nor in Libya. And now looking unlikely in The Gambia, as the hawks circle.

The Cassamance détente

Jammeh played no small role in “ending” the Cassamance separatist rebellion in 2014. The conflict which started in 1982 (even before Jammeh joined the Gambian army) preceded Jammeh’s 22 year repressive reign in The Gambia.

However, successive Senegalese leaders have accused Jammeh and Senegal’s southern neighbor Guinea-Bissau as being the lifeblood of the rebellion in their troubled southern region.

Gambian decedents in Senegal have accused Jammeh of filling his army and police with his Jola kinsmen from Cassamance. Jola is the dominant ethnic group in the Cassamance region, Northern Guinea-Bissau and Gambia’s southern border with Senegal including President Jammeh’s birthplace of Kanilai.

If accusations of links to Cassamance rebels, the Movement of the Democratic Forces of Cassamance (MDFC), are true then Jammeh could be in a position to take a parting shot at Senegal. Senegal should consider the scenario that resumption in the Cassamance rebellion may be part of his exit strategy.

The delegation of four and the ICC threat

Maybe ECOWAS sent the wrong people to negotiate with Jammeh. The delegation included the presidents of Nigeria (de facto head), Liberia (the current Chair of ECOWAS), Sierra Leone and Ghana.

Among the four, only President Buhari of Nigeria is Muslim. We might ignore that little titbit, but Jammeh might not. This too might strengthen Jammeh’s hand if ECOWAS deem the use of force necessary.

Also, the nations of all four heads of states are signatories to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  So, exile to any of these states, as proposed by Nigerian legislators early on Friday, is out of the question.

In October 2016, Jammeh “withdrew” The Gambia from the ICC. This came on the behest of the African Union (AU) which accuses the ICC of a “witch-hunt” against Africans, “African leaders” in particular, in solidarity with former indictee and president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta and Sudanese President Omar Al-Basir, the only sitting president to have a warrant of arrest on his head.

The Gambia, South Africa and Burundi are the only AU members to have heeded the call to boycott the ICC. The withdrawal of The Gambia was especially troubling for the ICC, because its Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is a Gambian.

Jammeh anticipated his vulnerability to prosecution by the Court, given the litany of accusations against him of rights violations including abductions, shooting of protesters, illegal detention of journalists, deaths in detention of students and opponents, and the summary executions of 44 Ghanaian immigrants in 2004.

President-elect Adama Barrow has pledged to reinstate his country in the ICC. This pledge, some say, is the catalyst behind Jammeh’s change of heart in accepting defeat.

ECOWAS were right to have been the first to attempt to persuade President Jammeh to accept his people’s verdict. But, as the results of their effort have shown, they may not necessarily be the ones with the best solution.

If Jammeh accepts to go into exile (I hope he does) he will certainly want to go to a non-signatory to the ICC. South Africa perhaps? China? Jammeh dumped Taiwan for China in 2013, but has not been very successful in attracting serious Chinese interest to his country.

Or why not the U.S. where he has family and is claimed to have real estate assets worth millions of dollars?

Jammeh will have to be given assurance for his personal safety and access to his assets by the incoming Trump administration. In that case, one would hope that, by now, ECOWAS would have tested the waters with the Trump team. I doubt they have.

Hoping too much from Jammeh

It is my sincere hope that Jammeh will see reason to protect the little left of his legacy and avoid the use of force against Gambians, by stepping down before January 19.

ECOWAS can create an incentive for Jammeh to step down peacefully. He desperately wants his case to be heard so he should be given that opportunity. This is not a desirable precedent to set, but one that will avert a potential civil conflict and the outcome can strengthen Gambia’s electoral processes.

President-elect Adama Barrow can be sworn into office on January 19, preferably out of The Gambia. President Kabba continued serving as the president of Sierra Leone from may 1997 until his return from Guinea in March 1998.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS should continue negotiations with Jammeh with the primary objective being to get him out of The Gambia. There cant be a future role for him within The Gambia.

The U.S. or another non ICC member should be co-opted into the negotiating team to provide an exit destination for Jammeh.

Nigeria and Sierra Leone should demonstrate good faith, by sending the judges to constitute the court that Jammeh needs to hear his case. It is a case that everyone but Jammeh knows he cannot win.

Anything short of a compromise from either or both sides, might cause unacceptable collateral damage for The Gambia and Senegal. And it also poses a threat to the fragile ECOWAS region.


  1. Is it difficult for someone to ask? Yayah want to hear from the court why not? Most of those in power know the games they play during elections. See what happened in Ivory Coast, they came for the president.

    In Libya they killed Khadafi, is Libya better today than ever? Saddam was killed, is Iraq better? Go to all so called Africa democratic countries and see what is going on there. Human suffering and mismanagement with dirty and dilapidated system.

    Mugabe stood against the whites in his own country and they suffering the people. Its too much. Long live Yayah Jammeh. Die as a brave soldier. Lets see if Gambia will be a better place.

  2. I thank the author of this article.You are wise and brave with all your comments. I salute you. It is true that Jammeh has been a tough leader and for sure that is the kind of leader most African countries need. His rule seen Gambia improve in many things and not forgetting standing against Senegal by preventing his country becoming a province of Senegal. He also played a crucial role in ending the war in Sierra Leone. Whatever others say about him he is my role model.

    Is Buhari innocent? Take a look at his past and even now. Is Sirleaf innocent? Also take a look at her past and role in Liberia. The only two with a clean record are Mahama and Koroma.

    When ever you go against the western powers, this is what you pay for it. Do we have any brave leaders to stand against the west? Most African leaders especially in French speaking countries that lick France, are still in power after so many years.

    How many people are killed every day in the west simple because you go against their interest. USA is the leading country and they are the ones active in human rights record. Now we have rights as blacks but not before. How many blacks killed in the USA every year? Please give me a break talking of human rights in the Gambia.

  3. I heard The Gambia has 800 or 900 soldiers to defend the entire country. This is far less than one platoon in the Nigeria Army. ECOWAS may not stay long in the Gambia to remove the dictator.

    The invading troops should ask the people to stay in while they march to the State house to arrest and take Jammeh to Senegal. This is the end of the road for the Thug

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