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High stakes as West Africa prepares military action against Gambia’s Jammeh

The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh at an ECOWAS meeting in Senegal over a political crisis in Mali. Now it’s his turn to face the music. Joe Penney/Reuters

In further escalation of the post-election crisis in The Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh declared a state of emergency just a day before his official mandate was due to come to an end. The announcement followed reports that a Nigerian warship was deployed off the Gambian coast while a regional military force was being assembled in neighbouring Senegal for possible military intervention. The events are the clearest signs that the regional Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) could act militarily to remove Jammeh from power. The Conversation Africa’s Julius Maina asks Abdul-Jalilu Ateku to examine the prospects.

What are the precedents for joint military action by West African states?

This isn’t the first time the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) would be intervening to resolve a national conflict. The 15-member organisation has intervened in all major hot spots within its jurisdiction ranging from the civil war in Liberia in 1990 to the post-election crisis in Côte d'Ivoire in 2011.

Ecowas is in fact the first regional security organisation to intervene militarily in an internal conflict in the region. When civil war broke out in Liberia in 1989, the US – which had strong ties with Monrovia – merely evacuated its citizens and turned a blind eye to the crisis. The United Nations on the other hand, preoccupied itself in the resolution of crises in the Gulf and Yugoslavia, left Liberia to its own devices. Ecowas intervened militarily on humanitarian grounds.

But the crisis that comes closest to the current Gambian impasse is the electoral dispute in Côte d'Ivoire. The incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and his Popular Front Party were defeated in the 2010 run-off elections but refused to step down for the winner Alassane Ouattara. West African leaders were quick to decide to intervene militarily to oust the defeated president. In the case of Côte d'Ivoire, however, there were already UN peacekeepers deployed to the country in a conflict that started in September 2002.

How clear are the justifications for military intervention?

Ecowas can militarily intervene through its Mediation and Security Council on advise of its Defence and Security Commission. But any intervention must be carried out within the UN Charter. The UN Charter provides for the involvement of regional arrangements and agencies in the maintenance of international peace and security. This is provided such activities are consistent with the purposes and principles outlined in Chapter I of the Charter. As a member of Ecowas, Gambia is bound by the decisions of the regional organisation and protocols relating to peace and security. Indeed the recommendation to establish and deploy the Ecomog – short for Ecowas Ceasefire Monitoring Group – into Liberia in 1990 was made by a committee chaired by the then Gambian president, Dawda Jawara.

For military intervention, regional leaders can invoke the supplementary protocol on democracy and good governance which proclaims:

Zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means.

Article 45 (1) states:

In the event that democracy is abruptly brought to an end by any means or where there is massive violation of human rights in a member state, Ecowas may impose sanctions on the state concerned.

The Ecowas mechanism for conflict prevention, management, resolution, peacekeeping and security – known simply as the Mechanism – authorises all forms of intervention including the deployment of political and military missions.

West African states can intervene militarily under article 25 of the Mechanism in response to conflict between two or several member states and in the event of internal conflict:

that threatens to trigger a humanitarian disaster; or that poses a serious threat to peace and security in the sub-region.

What are the chances of success of such intervention?

Jammeh will certainly be removed if Ecowas decides to use force. But that will come at a heavy price – for Gambia, the neighbouring states and the world. The regional ramifications in terms of resources to maintain the mission, refugee flows as well as the destruction and untold hardships that the people will face should not be glossed over.

The use of military force will begin as an attempt to remove a defeated and intransigent president. But the resistance may trigger attacks between his supporters and those of his key opponent Barrow.

Conflict between existing political groupings can trigger a civil war that will be difficult to resolve in a matter of days. It may take the form of ethnic cleansing, particularly in view of his long stay in power and the toes his administration might have stepped on. His supporters will be the targets and there would certainly be reprisal attacks. So, it’s not just simply a matter of forcefully removing Jammeh from power.

What are the potential consequences should such a mission fail?

The success or failure also depends on the mandate. If the Ecowas force’s mandate is to forcefully remove Jammeh and it fails then I’m sure there will be a high human toll. This could result in huge displacements internally and refugees would flow into neighbouring states. But the chances of failure are small if Ecowas intervenes with tacit support of the UN. It wouldn’t be an easy task, but in the end Jammeh would be removed at whatever cost.

Do you think military intervention is the best option?

My own view is that more intense diplomacy is required to mediate before the military option is deployed. Such other options as diplomatic sanctions, including severing ties with Jammeh administration, remain to be pursued. If Ecowas intervenes militarily now to force Jammeh out of office, it may still not get Barrow installed on January 19 because I do not think external military action by Ecowas can easily oust him in matter of few hours to get Barrow invested as the new president of Gambia.

If Barrow is installed in another location, Jammeh is likely to get himself sworn into office as happened in Côte d'Ivoire where Gbagbo was sworn into office despite the certification of election results by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative in Côte d'Ivoire. ECOWAS and it’s partners must move cautiously on the military path.

Should the mission succeed, does the end justify the means?

If the mission succeeds through military means, then the international community would have to begin the process of rebuilding peace. If Jammeh gets the backing of his security, which may also be supported by civilian groups, then the international community should be prepared to rebuild what’s destroyed.

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