Two presidents and an intervention: Gambia is not Côte d’Ivoire, but it can learn from it
The similarities between Gambia today and Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 may be most relevant not in how the intervention unfolds, but in what happens once a new government is installed.
With the inauguration of Adama Barrow at the Gambian embassy in neighbouring Senegal this afternoon, The Gambia now has two men claiming to be its president. The other, Yahya Jammeh, remains in the country, refusing to relinquish power 23 years after he seized it, despite the threat of armed intervention by regional forces who insist that he lost the December 2016 elections.
These dynamics may remind many of the standoff in Gambia’s West African neighbour of Côte d’Ivoire back in 2010-11.
In that impasse, the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo also rejected electoral results and clung to power, trying to project a veneer of legitimacy and constitutionality. His opponent Alassane Ouattara – also supported by foreign powers who saw him as representing new possibilities of democracy, human rights and improved external relationships – held an inauguration too, leading the country to have two concurrent presidents. And, as with Gambia today, international armed forces stood ready to intervene to depose the sitting ruler.
These similarities may be cause for concern as Senegalese reportedly enter The Gambia. After all, in Côte d’Ivoire’s ensuing four-month conflict, at least 1,500 people were killed and over a million were displaced as French and UN-backed troops overthrew Gbagbo and installed Ouattara. The country is still far from resolving its underlying discords, as brought into stark relief by the army mutinies in the past week or so.
However, despite the many likenesses, The Gambia’s situation today is also very different from Côte d’Ivoire’s. And it is in understanding both the similarities and dissimilarities that we can shed some light on the potential challenges and pitfalls the country will face in moving on from this highly uncertain crisis point.
Why The Gambia isn’t Côte d’Ivoire
The Gambia’s situation today is different from Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 for several reasons.
To begin with, although both have wished to stay in power and engaged in divisive and anti-imperialist rhetoric, Jammeh is not Gbagbo.
Jammeh came to power in a military coup in 1994 as a relatively unknown soldier. Gbabgo, on the other hand, was a central political player in Côte d’Ivoire before coming to power in 2000. Both may have masked some of their policies in an anti-imperialist discourse, but whereas Gbagbo, a former academic, began with a serious socialist analysis and vision, Jammeh’s often feel like an afterthought.
In power, Gbagbo espoused a discourse of Ivoirité, a hypernationalist brand of ethnic politics that marginalised Northern, Muslim and second-generation Ivoirians and led to rising internal tensions. But while Jammeh has brutally discriminated against homosexuals and political opponents, he has only dipped his toes into ethnic politics with comments in 2015 against the Mandinkas, The Gambia’s largest ethnic group, which may have in part cost him the polls.
Secondly, Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 is not The Gambia in 2017 in terms of potential for inner and prolonged conflict. At the time of elections in 2010, Côte d’Ivoire was still reeling from eight years of instability and violence, and almost 17 years of increasingly divisive, ethnicised politics. Ivoirians on both sides were mobilised to fight and many reacted immediately to messages from politicians and their emissaries through media and street-level political forums.
In The Gambia by contrast, Barrow, Jammeh and other prominent figures have actively discouraged citizens from disturbing peace, while the country’s small population does not even equal the number of Ivoirians in the dense urban areas of Abidjan where violence occurred in 2011. Furthermore, while in Côte d’Ivoire Gbagbo loyalists stood by his side, in Gambia, several members of Jammeh’s cabinet have fled the country and the degree of military backing remains unknown.
Finally, Gambia’s elections are not Côte d’Ivoire’s elections in terms of international implications. Due to The Gambia’s relative political isolation, no accusations of foreign intervention or support for one candidate were made. Barrow was a newcomer to the political game, the ideal person to unite a disparate coalition of seven political parties.
Conversely in Côte d’Ivoire, the French and international community played an active role in the conflict and did not hide their support for Ouattara. International interests in the resource-rich country opened the field to bitter accusations of foreign intervention and provided an avenue to illegitimise Ouattara’s victory. This will not be the case in The Gambia.
What we can learn from Côte d’Ivoire
All this suggests that as regional West African forces intervene, the kind of bloody conflict and displacement seen in Côte d’Ivoire is unlikely to be replicated.
However, unless the full experience of Côte d’Ivoire is understood, there is a danger that some of the mistakes made in the aftermath of military intervention could be repeated. Indeed, the similarities between the situations that do exist may be at their most relevant not in how the intervention may unfold, but in how they affect the countries once the new government has been installed.
Partly as a result of foreign intervention in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, many Gbagbo supporters still consider Ouattara’s victory the result of a coup led by France and others. This belief has prevented many from accepting new leadership and contributed to widespread boycotts of elections that prolong political divisions to this day. This has been exacerbated by the feeling that true justice was never served and that reconciliation was not achieved, a fact not helped by perception that Ouattara is privileging his fellow northerners in government.
Both Barrow and forces readying to intervene therefore ought to be acutely sensitive to similar dynamics emerging in The Gambia amongst those who perceive themselves to be on the losing end of a foreign military intervention and contested election. While Barrow has the support of many Gambians and a broad host of international actors, the new government must take care to engage with all parties and ethnicities in The Gambia as promised in Barrow’s platform and practice an equal justice.
The Gambia could also learn from its neighbour’s experience of how to move forwards with a coalition government. In Côte d’Ivoire, the five-party coalition that facilitated Ouattara’s 2010 victory was maintained in 2015 campaign. However, the decision to maintain the coalition by party leaders angered voters who felt that the political field had been unfairly narrowed.
While promoting inclusion and reconciliation, The Gambia must also consider strategies to encourage autonomy and competition from the start, and allow for a dynamic political playing field to exist. This is unchartered terrain for a country that has existed under Jammeh’s repressive regime for over two decades, but while the end of this reign may be widely celebrated, the truly difficult work of building an inclusive and democratic future and avoiding countless pitfalls will begin with the new government’s earliest decisions.
There are many parallels to be drawn between the current political crisis in The Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire’s recent past, but the focus of these comparisons should be to encourage a progressive new Gambian state instead of foreshadowing prolonged instability. The Gambia is not Africa’s next Côte d’Ivoire but it can certainly learn from its experiences.
Dr Marika Tsolakis is a Global Challenges Research Fund postdoctoral research fellow at University College London, Institute of Education.