Steve Hilbert, policy advisor on Africa, USCCB
The United States just completed a long election season. It was at times divisive, unsettling and frustrating. In the end, our institutions prevailed and delivered a peaceful transfer of power. Four thousand miles away another transfer of power just took place in The Gambia in West Africa. This one almost ended in disaster. A political unknown, Adama Barrow, a former real estate agent, took on President Yahya Jammeh, who had been in power for 22 years. No one thought Mr. Barrow would win, but he won. People were even more shocked when President Jammeh, known for his human and civil rights violations, conceded defeat. On a continent where personality politics has yet to give way to strong democratic institutions, President Jammeh subsequently withdrew his concession. He claimed the election, run by his own government, had been fraudulent. The President also called a meeting with the Islamic leaders and the Christian Council of Churches to demand their support. For a President who always appears in public with a Koran in hand, this endorsement was symbolically crucial. Instead, the religious leaders told the President to bow to the will of the people and step down. Bishop Oscar Cantú, Chair of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote to Bishop Robert Ellison of Banjul to share appreciation for the courage that he and his brother religious leaders had shown. He expressed solidarity with the people of The Gambia. When the head of the national army pledged his troops’ allegiance to President Jammeh, it looked like democracy for and by the people would fall. But the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stepped in to resolve the crisis. Four West African Presidents met with President Jammeh to convince him to step down. Jammeh refused. ECOWAS then announced that they were prepared to use military means to force President Jammeh from power. President-Elect Barrow fled to Senegal and was sworn in as President in The Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal. The Senegalese army with support from Ghana and Nigeria crossed into The Gambia with a final ultimatum. Mediation trips by two other West African leaders convinced Jammeh to leave the country. Reports say that he left with a transport plane full of luxury cars and $11.4 million in government funds. President Adama Barrow hopes to seek the return of state resources. He has also called for a truth and reconciliation commission on past violations of human and civil rights. This is not the first time West African leaders have intervened to avert a crisis. They ended a coup d’état in Mali in 2012 and supported the ouster of a recalcitrant coup leader in Burkina Faso in 2015. In the 1990s they sent troops to end a long civil war in Liberia. These efforts are strong indicators that African leaders are increasingly committed to democratic rule. Other countries in West Africa like Ghana, Senegal, Benin and Nigeria are building stronger democratic institutions and a solid track record of democratic rule and the peaceful transfer of power. International support for African efforts to promote democracy, free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society and human rights are crucial. Africa has made slow and steady progress towards democratic rule and economic prosperity. It has a long way to go and depends on continued support from the United States to meet these goals. The United States can show positive leadership in the world by working with countries that strive to build democracy and peace. Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Going Deeper! Explore the work of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, which assists the bishops in advancing the social mission of the Church, especially in its advocacy for policies that advance justice, defend human dignity and protect poor and vulnerable communities around the world. Join USCCB and CRS in advocating on behalf of those who are vulnerable around the world, through Catholics Confront Global Poverty.