AU, regional bodies: act on errant leaders to protect citizens

Yahya Jammeh has left Gambia. He didn’t get a hero’s sendoff that he would have dearly loved, but was driven out of town with a gun pointed to his head.

Yahya Jammeh has left Gambia. He didn’t get a hero’s sendoff that he would have dearly loved, but was driven out of town with a gun pointed to his head.

Those inclined to belief in the super-natural will say his charms had become ineffective and could no longer keep him in power, or that his luck simply ran out.

To the more rational, his neighbours’ patience with a colleague with an unstable mind reached its limit. Or that the man was not that foolish. He saw the gathering force from ECOWAS – the Nigerian warship clearly visible from State House, its air force jets also visible and loud in the tiny Gambian sky, and Senegalese troops marching to Banjul -.and was persuaded it was time to leave.

The picture of Laurent Gbagbo caught in his bedroom not far away in Ivory Coast some years ago must have flashed in his mind and he decided that was not the fate he wished for himself.

Finally, regional powers have acted to remove a president who had lost an election, conceded defeat and then changed his mind and vowed to stay put. This resolve has been lacking in the past. Regional groupings or the African Union have often failed to act to ensure that the will of the people is respected or that regional security and stability are maintained.

Cynics will say it is only against tiny Gambia that this was possible, that it would not happen against a bigger country with a stronger military. They might have a point.

This is not the first time ECOWAS acts against a rogue regime in a member country. They did it in Sierra Leone when a bunch of murderous rebels had run amok in that country. A Nigerian-led force was sent in but it couldn’t complete the job and had to be assisted by the British.

Still, it has worked this time and it might be good to examine why it was so.

One of the main issues has been the lack of a common stand among regional blocs against leaders who do not play by the rules. There are various reasons for this, among which are divergent national interests, personal relationships between leaders of different countries and reluctance to throw stones when they live in a similar situation.

The other has been the absence of regional powers with military, economic and diplomatic muscle and readiness to wield the stick.

Another excuse for inaction was the old principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country going back to the days of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Where a strong foreign power has interests in a particular country and props up an unpopular or even illegitimate administration, it has been impossible for African countries to take any corrective action.

In the case of Gambia and Jammeh, the situation had become different.

There was some form of unanimity among West African leaders that he had to go, helped in no small measure by the man’s unconventional behaviour. Or if there was none, there was no opposition to his removal.

Nigeria and Senegal had the stick and were prepared to wield it. Equally, no foreign power had enough interests in Gambia and Jammeh to stand in the way of his removal.

The question has been asked. Why can this happen in West Africa but not in East Africa where similar situations obtain?

We have Burundi where the president broke the rules, installed himself and locks up, kills or sends into exile all those who think he is wrong. He has become so afraid of his people he lives in hiding, only coming out when foreign dignitaries come calling. Mediation by regional leaders has produced no results.

In South Sudan, the fight for power between the president and his former deputy have led to a full-blown civil war in which thousands of civilians have been killed and many more driven out of the country.

The East African Community (EAC) and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) leaders have failed to resolve the two conflicts largely because some of them seem to have taken sides.

But it is also not entirely true to say that East Africa has not been interventionist.

In the late 1970s Tanzania invaded Uganda and removed Idi Amin from power. Admittedly, Tanzania acted in self-interest. Amin had invaded and occupied Tanzanian territory. It was, therefore, imperative to push him out. Ugandan exiles seized the opportunity to get rid of him.

In the late 1990s, Rwanda went into then Zaire (now DR Congo), again on a matter of self-interest, to dismantle military camps of the defeated army and militia that had regrouped in Zaire and operated in refugee camps, and rescue refugees who had been held hostage there. Congolese rebels led by Laurent Kabila similarly seized the moment to topple President Mobutu.

There are times when national and regional security and stability demand tough action. Hopefully, this might be one of the areas that have been proposed for reform by the African Union.


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