The likely dangers of the Western African states’ attempts to impose a solution on The Gambia
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has resolved to send a military force (ECOMOG) into The Gambia apparently to achieve three interrelated objectives: first to “protect” the president-elect, Adama Barrow; second to uphold the presidential elections results that President Yahya Jammeh has cancelled; third to ensure that Barrow is sworn in as president. This is a big gamble that is likely to cause more problems than it seeks to solve.
A fundamentalist movement initiated by Western nations and supported by many elites elsewhere and in Africa has swept the world. This movement wants democracy along Western liberal lines to prevail everywhere. It supports the use of supra national institutions to enforce democracy where it is faltering. There are many people in the Western world who believe genuinely that liberal democracy should be spread across the world, even by force, as a one-size-fits-all solution irrespective of context.
This combination of intense religiousity with a militant faith in the application of democracy in every situation has a large cadre of priests. This secular priesthood has come to dominate the mass media, the academia, diplomatic corps, civil society organisations, etc. Today they monopolise public discourse and have successfully channeled the debate to one direction. They have drowned out alternative voices while giving the appearance of free debate.
However, Western powers also have ulterior motives for promoting democracy in poor countries even when they know that such efforts often lead to disaster. . One of them is to please their domestic constituencies. The other is that democracy offers Western powers opportunities to infiltrate and control poor nations. It allows them to hijack the policy-making process in poor countries so that it serves Western rather than domestic interests.
Democracy is much more susceptible to infiltration compared to authoritarianism. Western nations can fund opposition political parties, mass media and NGOs (which they miscall “civil society”) to undermine poor governments that develop nationalistic policies, which may threaten Western interests. Therefore, the promotion of “democracy” in poor countries by Western nations is often driven by a desire to control. Unable to see these machinations, supra national bodies on our continent and many of our elites buy the claims of the big powers on face value.
I believe in liberal democratic ideals. In a perfect world I would love to see them applied everywhere. However, I am also conscious that democracy is not an ideal that can be exported and imposed on a country or society by force. Rather it is a practice that grows within a country or society under very specific circumstances. Indeed the lesson we learn from history is that democratic development grows through feats and starts. It endures when driven by the persons directly affected by it. Democracy fails when it is imposed from outside. Recent experiments to export democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have produced disasters whose consequences are still fresh in our minds.
Nations can change and improve their governance and need a certain amount of time and space to do so without violent intrusions in their internal affairs. In any case, who is ECOWAS to care more about the interests of Gambians than the Gambian people themselves? If Gambians want Barrow as president, let them go onto the streets and stop Jammeh from usurping their freely expressed will. Civilians can surmount dictators as was demonstrated in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Burkina Faso in October 2014 and only last week in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It took the Western world decades, in fact centuries, of trial and error, feats and starts to realise the quality of democracy they have today. If democracy works in Western countries, it is because it evolved organically out of these societies and was shaped by myriad negotiations and compromises between the different social forces. Therefore, attempts by Western powers supported by the secular priesthood to promote democracy in poor countries are actually attempts to force long-term trends to a premature conclusion.
ECOWAS is taking a big gamble to try and impose democracy on Gambia by force. It will most likely be easy for ECOMOG forces to defeat the Gambian army, which seems to support Jammeh. But like the Americans have discovered in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, defeating a dictator is easy but creating lasting peace, leave alone a functional democratic system, is a whole different ballgame. Therefore, ECOMOG could ignite a civil war that may last years and leave wounds that are difficult to heal.
This is not the first time ECOWAS is trying to impose a solution on a member state. In 1990, Charles Taylor was on the verge of capturing power in Liberia when that body intervened through ECOMOG to enforce a solution. This prolonged the civil war by 13 years and left the country almost destroyed. As I have argued before, the best solution for Liberia at the time would have been to leave (or even help) Taylor who was strong, capture power.
I have utmost confidence in the people of Gambia to secure their democracy by themselves. This may not happen today or tomorrow. But we need to avoid the temptation of thinking we can solve Africa’s problems with theoretical quick fixes. Left alone Gambians are best placed to shape the compromises that will ensure durable democratic practice. Foreign military intervention to force Barrow into power will undermine the necessary internal political negotiations that allow democracy to grow and consolidate.
Instead, foreign forces will create an artificial scenario where the defeated feel they have been removed from power by foreign interests and may feel alienated from the political process and launch a civil war or wait until foreign armies leave for them to begin a war. Meanwhile, victorious political players, knowing where their bread is battered, will now depend on foreign military force for their political survival. This will undermine their incentives to seek internal political compromise and social integration.
I pray and hope that my predictions on Gambia don’t materialise because future generations of Gambians will be happy that I was wrong. I predicted for Libya in 2011that NATO airstrikes would certainly remove Muammar Gadaffi but the result would be neither a stable government nor a functional democracy. Instead, I predicted anarchy. Libya today is a mosaic of small fiefdoms ruled by belligerent warlords. Please ECOWAS, do not allow your fantastical theories to lead you to actions likely to create another Libya in The Gambia