Gambia Countdown: Democracy's Challenges and Gains in Africa

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Jammeh--still in his own universe

Africa begins the new year with some of the perennial political challenges that need urgent resolution and developments that offer hope for the continent.

The good news -- domestic and regional players in Africa are taking leading roles in resolving crises points.

Hopefully Gambia's dictator of the last 22 years, Yahya Jammeh, will soon be forced to yield power after recently losing an election.

If Jammeh leaves peacefully he may get asylum. If troops from regional countries intervene he risks trial, incarceration or even death if he resists. The presidents of Nigeria and Liberia (Muhammadu Buhari and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, respectively) and Ghana's former president (John Mahama) met Jammeh in Gambia on January 13, for the second time, to press a resolution.

Jammeh once vowed he'd rule for 1,000 years --megalomaniacs like that number. Hitler and Rhodesia's Ian Smith once claimed their dictatorships would last that long-- or unless God decided otherwise. He was defeated on December 1, by businessman Adama Barrow.

All of Africa was stunned when the loquacious Jammeh conceded. But the real Jammeh -- he's referred to on the official Gambia state house website as "His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh Babili Mansa" -- returned one week later. He claimed his "investigation" exposed voting "irregularities"; he's now called for new elections.

Jammeh discovered that the heydays of untrammeled dictatorship is over
in West Africa. In recent years incumbents have been voted out: Senegal (2012); Nigeria (2015); and right after Gambia's own elections, in Ghana. In all these cases the defeated leaders bowed out peacefully.

In Burkina Faso when dictator Blaise Campoare --he shot his way to power in 1987 by murdering the popular charismatic Captain Thomas Sankara-- tried to amend the constitution in 2014 to extend his regime, the youth took to the streets, burned down parliament building and drove him into exile. A year later democratic elections were held. 

Welcome to the new West Africa where civilians are determined to guide their own political destiny.

The powerful regional organization, the Economic Commission of West African States (Ecowas), appointed Nigeria's Buhari and Ghana's ex-president Mahama who graciously accepted defeat in December, as co-mediators. They are working with Liberia's President Johnson Sirleaf.

These leaders have made it clear that Ecowas will intervene militarily if Jammeh doesn't step down by January 19. Jammeh and his army commander have vowed to "defend the sovereignty" of Gambia. With a population of 2 million, an army of no more than 2,000, and citizens who danced on the streets after he was defeated in December, this sounds like pie-in-the-sky talk.

Senegal, which geographically envelops Gambia and has rejected Jammeh's bid to retain power, alone has an army of 20,000; Nigeria's military is 200,000-strong.

Jammeh is probably insisting on favorable terms for exile with assurances. He surely recalls that although Nigeria once granted sanctuary to beleaguered Charles Taylor, the former Liberian leader was later tried for war crimes by a special court created by the U.N., convicted, and is now serving a 50-year sentence.

The trend to consolidate democratization in West Africa bodes well for the region, and signals encouragement to the entire continent.

Yet, elsewhere, in East Africa, the politics are still on a tumultuous course.

February 18 marks the first anniversary of the Ugandan elections stolen by the country's dictator of 31 years now, Gen. Yoweri K. Museveni -- it's the fifth fraudulent vote he's presided over.

The man who's widely believed to have won, Dr. Kizza Besigye, is still demanding for an audit of the results. He also says he'd be willing to participate in negotiations through an independent mediator to transition Gen. Museveni out of power. Like Jammeh the Ugandan dictator would also need assurances.

So, why have successive U.S. administrations, including Obama's, supported  Museveni's regime with substantial military and financial support --$750 million in 2015 alone-- while ignoring political repression, embezzlement and grave human rights abuses? Museveni has deployed thousands of Ugandan troops to Somalia to fight al-Shabab insurgents who have declared allegiance to the faded al-Qaeda.

For that reason, he gets a blanket check from Washington on gross abuses. The most recent incident was the November 26 massacre of dozens of already disarmed royal guards to Charles Wesley Mumbere, the hereditary king of Rwenzururu, one of Uganda's several traditional monarchies. Estimates of the dead range from 64 to over 100. The regime claims Mumbere harbors militants who seek Museveni's ouster. 

Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the killings and noted that, "Video footage broadcast by Ugandan TV stations shows bodies of young men apparently dumped on river banks and in bushes, and men writhing in pain as they are tossed off pickup trucks with their hands tied behind their backs."

Will Gen. Museveni be able to continue playing the Somalia card to secure blind support and extend his tyranny when the Trump administration comes into office? Time will tell -- initial indications are that Trump is skeptical of the Obama administration's Somalia approach.

However, as an indication that Dr. Besigye's case against Museveni has gained broader resonance and legitimacy, he was invited to, and attended, the January 7 swearing in ceremony of Nana Akuffo-Addo, Ghana's new president, who defeated the incumbent Mahama in December.

Meanwhile there was fear that Congo could erupt in unchecked violence when President Joseph Kabila's second term expired on December 19 with no successor in place since he'd intentionally not organized elections.

Pressure mounted for a resolution--there were: continued protests in the streets by activists, including the youth organization Talema, which has been effective in mobilizing rallies with social media tactics similar to those of the BlackLivesMatter movement; the regime reacted brutally leading to dozens of deaths; the U.S. placed sanctions against several of Kabila's senior officials; and, religious leaders, including those of the Catholic Church, demanded dialogue. Finally, a deal was announced; elections are to be held before the end of this year and Kabila is ineligible to run.

South Sudan remains on fire. There, fighting has escalated since President Salva Kiir ousted Vice President Riek Machar for a second time, again, at the behest of his ally Gen. Museveni, whose military backs Kiir's army and has even been accused of using cluster bombs in the past. Museveni fears that if Machar ever becomes president of South Sudan he could have incentive to settle scores by offering sanctuary for his own political opponents.

So, this is a brief, albeit partial, survey of the political landscape of Africa as we settle into 2017 with a new administration in Washington.

It's only January--brace yourself.

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