It is easy as Americans to be lost in our own affairs and to ignore significant events on the other side of the world—especially when we have been transfixed by a spectacle like the inauguration and the events elsewhere are occurring in a small and obscure country. But attention should be paid because what has just happened in Gambia—the smallest country in continental Africa—is an unsung inspiration.
The opposition candidate, Adama Barrow, won the presidential election on December 1 over the longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a military coup in 1994 and has presided over a dysfunctional and despotic regime. As Human Rights Watch noted, “forced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, and other human rights violations” have been a hallmark of his rule. So it was hardly surprising that, after at first appearing to accept the election outcome, Jammeh swiftly went back on his word and made clear his determination to hold onto power.
What was truly surprising is what happened next—namely that the rest of the world did not simply accept this usurpation of democratic norms. Instead, the Economic Community of West African States recognized Barrow as the true president of Gambia, and, with United Nations backing, mobilized military forces to oust Jammeh. After Barrow was sworn in as president in Gambia’s embassy in next-door Senegal, military forces from Senegal, Nigeria, and other states entered Gambia, heading for the capital, Banjul, which they entered to the cheers of the inhabitants.
With the loyalty of his security forces uncertain, Jammeh had no choice but to accept this new reality. The New York Times reported on Saturday that he “arrived at the airport in Banjul, the capital, in his Rolls-Royce and dressed in all white. A military band played the national anthem and a song it had composed just for him that it often played to accompany his journeys. Mr. Jammeh walked slowly toward a waiting airplane, shaking hands with a line of people and escorted by Alpha Condé, the president of Guinea. A Quran in one hand, he waved with the other to the crowd.” And then he boarded an airplane and headed for exile, apparently in Equatorial Guinea.
Granted, Jammeh seems to have taken with him a hefty retirement present—there were reports that he had looted the Gambian treasury of as much as $11 million on his way out the door. If that’s true, the next government of Gambia should make every attempt to recover the ill-gotten gains.
Even aside from the issue of last-minute looting, this success in installing constitutional government should not be exaggerated. Gambia is a tiny country (population of fewer than 2 million people) and one change of government does not a liberal democracy make. Africa still remains less free than any other continent—according to Freedom House, only 12 percent of its 993 million people live in free countries. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that Gambia’s neighbors took democracy seriously enough to risk war for it.
Given the defeats suffered by freedom in so many other countries, from Egypt to Russia, it is heartening to see one nation, however small, take a small step forward. Let us hope that even the Trump administration, which is hardly going to make democracy-promotion a touchstone of its foreign policy, will recognize and applaud this small advance in the universal struggle for liberty.