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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Local Perceptions Matter: How do You Feel About Pro-Democracy Foreign Interventions?

Article by: Helen Kurvits

This article was published as part of a cooperation with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks, and draws from this detailed analysis on The Gambia by Sophia Birchinger, Sait Matty Jaw, Omar M. Bah and Antonia Witt.

The Unexpected

In December 2016, The Gambia, located in Western Africa, held elections that led to an outcome that many had not expected. Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled the country since 1994, witnessed an electoral defeat. Before Jammeh’s rule, The Gambia had developed into a multi-party democracy but Jammeh’s rule since 1994 was marked by human rights abuses and withdrawal from multilateralism. According to Afrobarometer, 28% of the Gambian population suffered human rights abuses under Jammeh’s rule, including arbitrary arrest or detentions without a trial, torture, rape, state-sponsored murder, and disappearances, among others. After the 2016 elections which brought the long-awaited change, Jammeh refused to recognise the results.

Intervention in The Gambia

This led to a post-election crisis, as well as African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervention. The AU and ECOWAS first engaged diplomatically and appointed a mediation team composed of former or sitting presidents from anglophone West Africa. However, these efforts did not bear fruit. Barrow, the former opposition candidate who won the elections, was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Dakar and was recognised by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC also gave de facto backing for ECOWAS activities. After a series of engagements that eventually led to a deal, Jammeh went to self-exile in Equatorial Guinea and the ECOWAS forces crossed the border from Senegal into The Gambia to consolidate Barrow’s power. Sophia Birchinger, Sait Matty Jaw, Omar M. Bah and Antonia Witt have researched Gambian perceptions of the AU and ECOWAS intervention. Interestingly, the perceptions of the country’s populaiton were not uniform. They often differed due to their socio-economic and political positionality.

“Siding with the People… But…”

Some Gambians saw the AU and ECOWAS interventions as inevitable and effective steps for the country to progress. In late 2016 and early 2017, the AU and ECOWAS enjoyed broad support amongst the Gambian population. Residents perceived them to be siding with the people instead of Jammeh. Many in the civil society and youth believe that without the intervention, Jammeh would have stayed in the office. Three main reasons are identified why the first phase of the intervention was primarily supported. First, the intervention was seen as timely and necessary. Second, the intervention did not cause harm to Gambian citizens. Third, the intervention gave hope to Gambians about the future trajectory of the country. A youth activist participating in the study noted that thanks to the intervention “citizens began to believe that our Gambia is moving on the right track”. Yet, there is a but. Over the years, the perception of the AU and ECOWAS overstaying its mandate became more common.

The AU and ECOWAS as an Occupying Force

The positive and generally appreciative narrative is contrasted with a more critical one. First, the criticism raises doubts about the overall necessity and legitimacy of the regional intervention, calling into question a foreign intervention. And second, the narrative questions the way the intervention was conducted, in particular the diplomatic negotiations and the use of force. It accuses the AU and ECOWAS of siding with the former opposition and coalition candidate Adama Barrow and opposing Jammeh. The AU and ECOWAS are blamed for leaving no options for Jammeh, who was forced to leave. This narrative of the AU and ECOWAS as an occupying force had few supporters among the research participants but was most prominent in the Foni region, which was the deployment site for the Senegalese  ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) contingent. The Foni region was also the home region of Jammeh himself and the ethnic group of Jolas, who were relatively privileged with access to economic resources and power, that they were risking losing after Jammeh’s defeat. After Jammeh’s defeat, they are said to have experienced a feeling of marginalisation.

Restoring Everyday Peace

The third narrative expresses the country’s population’s desire for a normal everyday life. It purports that the interventions initially caused fright but ultimately restored so-called everyday life. It appeared that the research participants did not know at first what to expect from the interventions which caused insecurity and fear. But when Jammeh left the country after the start of the intervention, it allowed them to return to their daily life. A community elder in Wassu described, “Ever since they came here, it’s been peaceful”. This narrative was prevalent among those that were less interested in the political developments of The Gambia and have little access to the political discourse. It mainly encompasses people from suburban marginalised communities who have little or no linkage to the political sphere or from rural areas distant from the intervention sites and government politics. Peaceful everyday life is the core interest of these groups.

Later Stage of the Intervention

At a later stage of the intervention, after the post-electoral crisis, two other narratives emerged among the local population. The AU was then less visible and the perceptions were focused on the ECOWAS forces. Some locals became fearful of a security void after the intervention was over which would enable the loyalists of Jammeh to come back to power. The proponents of this view favoured a continued ECOWAS presence. On the other hand, a contrary narrative argued for the withdrawal of ECOWAS troops as these were seen to overstay their mandate. An even more radical view is present in the home region of Jammeh where the Senegalese forces were present as well. Over time, the unwelcoming feelings of intervention intensified and this view considers ECOWAS as an oppressor and refers to the limitations of everyday life, such as the seizure of land and limited possibilities to continue farming, due to the presence of ECOWAS mostly in connection with the Senegalese contingent.

Stances Differing Around the World

As shown, the different socio-economic background and political positionality of the local population in The Gambia shaped their perceptions towards the AU and ECOWAS intervention. Many locals viewed the intervention as timely and necessary to solve the post-electoral crisis after Jammeh refused to recognise its defeat. Others were less interested or less supportive. Internationally, perceptions have been largely positive of the intervention.  The United Kingdom’s former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson called on Jammeh to step down and praised “African organisations which are working to ensure the democratic wishes of the Gambian people will be respected”.  The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for a “cool-headed” and calm resolution to the conflict. South Africa announced it recognises Adama Barrow as the legitimate president of The Gambia and praised the efforts of the international community for a negotiated and peaceful solution to the crisis.

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