The Banjul Urgency

Guest Columnist: Chidi Amuta

President Buhari’s preoccupation with domestic headaches will not excuse Nigeria from the consequences of dangerous developments in our West African neighborhood. Foreign policy bad judgment and missteps in matters around us can in fact vitiate the best exertions at home. Nor can a nation be insulated from the hazards of its time and place because it has domestic problems. West Africa is our immediate place. The challenge of democratic transition at least in the sub region defines this moment for us. The tiny state of The Gambia presents us a test case, one that is glaring and urgent.

Central to the imminent political crisis in The Gambia is Nigeria’s centrality and commitment to democracy, order and security in West Africa. At no other time has that challenge been more sharply defined than now. And never have the chances of quick and decisive success been brighter. The urgency of the situation however overrides other considerations because of the humanitarian, economic and other unintended costs of a possible flare up.

Let us quickly recall the prologue. Reasonably credible presidential elections were held in the Gambia at the end of 2016. The incumbent president, Mr. Yaya Jammeh, was defeated. He congratulated Mr. Adamu Barrow, the winner, and the world heaved a sigh of relief that perhaps democracy’s prospects in that nation had brightened given Mr. Jammeh’s autocratic and bloody antecedents. Suddenly, a few days later, Mr. Jammeh changed his mind and rejected the polls, calling for fresh elections.

Leaders of West Africa rose in unison to insist that Mr. Jammeh must abide by the constitution of The Gambia and peacefully hand over power to the winner in the next few days. Mr. Jammeh has been digging in, openly defying the authority and diplomatic persuasions of ECOWAS. His actions so far indicate an incremental rejection of diplomacy and a preference for confrontation and autocratic stubbornness. He has closed opposition media houses, bought over the military and reportedly begun recruiting militants and jihadists as mercenaries in the event that ECOWAS opts for force. His body language, utterances and maneuvers so far indicate that he is digging in and may prefer to be dug out or buried in the rubble.

West Africa has rightly handed over the crisis to Nigeria with President Buhari as lead actor. The clock is ticking as there are only a few days left to the handover date. There is narrow certainty that Jammeh will leave peacefully. If he jumps down, it would be good but unusual. If he does not, Nigeria now has to lead the charge in helping him climb down somehow. For Nigeria and President Buhari, there is a huge reputational risk and strategic imperative, albeit one that is only derives from our extant foreign policy sketchpad.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, there is a sense in which Jammeh may be seen as a default creation of Nigeria. Founding President Dauda Jawara signed a defense treaty with the Abacha regime in 1993 to protect the democratically elected government of the small nation, re-train the Gambia’s small army and generally guarantee its security. A contingent led by then Colonel Lawan Gwadabe was sent to the Gambia. All seemed well until suddenly in 1994 when Yaya Jammeh, a Nigerian trained junior officer staged a bloodless coup that toppled Dawda Jawara and sent him into exile in Senegal aboard an American war ship. Gwadabe and his team were sent packing. No one knows to what extent the coup that brought Jammeh to power was inspired directly or indirectly by the influence of Nigeria’s coup culture. Thus was born one of Africa’s most vicious and ambitious dictators.

Beyond this vicarious responsibility for the emergence of Jammeh, Nigeria’s strategic stake in the sub region has thrust the task of neutralizing Jammeh squarely on Nigeria’s laps. On the matter of security and order in the West African sub region, Nigeria remains the ultimate guarantor. Our economic interest as indicated by the presence and activities of our nationals stretches from neighboring Benin and Togo to as far as Guinea and Mauritania.

The small nation of Gambia poses a veritable danger to itself and the sub-region. In recent world affairs, a new principle has replaced non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. When a nation so mismanages its affairs that it poses a danger to its citizens and other nations, it defaults in its sovereign obligations and therefore loses its sovereign immunity: Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Iraq are ready recent examples. The power vacuum so created imposes a moral burden on nations with strategic interest in the region to act in a manner to save the afflicted nation from itself and its people from its leadership and the world from dire consequences. Such action could be diplomatic concert or military force.

Gambia is small. But the strategic implications of its implosion are huge for Nigeria and West Africa. There are many Nigerians living and plying their trades in the country. Their safety ought to be a prime consideration in the event of an ugly escalation. Jammeh has already re-christened his country The Islamic Republic of The Gambia. The implications of that nomenclature are more than cosmetic in today’s world of sectarian madness. The adverse implications of a self-declared Islamic Republic in the armpit of West Africa will increase if the Gambia is allowed to implode.

In recent times, Islamic fundamentalist terror has found a comfort zone in West Africa especially the Maghreb. Terrorist insurgency has already threatened the security of Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, etc. While Nigeria remains engaged with Boko Haram, a homegrown and increasingly viral variant of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, bombs have exploded in hotels in Burkina Faso, Ghana and frequently in Mali, a country whose government was sacked by desert terrorists until the French sent troops and aircraft to restore order. The routing of ISIS in Mali, Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen has exposed West Africa even further. The Gambia as a failed state would present a ready staging post, one that is easy to overrun and convert into an ISIS enclave.

The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria readily affiliated itself to ISIS. Its recent routing in the Sambisa Forest has unleashed a wave of migrant terrorists in search of a safe haven and a territorial nucleus. Already, Mr. Jammeh is reported to be recruiting mercenaries to bolster his small army and secure his longevity in power. The Gambia has therefore become ripe and attractive to terrorist strategists as we speak.

In all of this, Nigeria has an overwhelming national security interest. We have established it repeatedly that The ECOWAS sub-region remains our immediate and primary sphere of influence. Our economy, demographics and basic national security dictate this. In the past, we have demonstrated a fairly credible capacity to project our limited power in pursuit of our strategic interests in in West Africa. We did so through the use of force in Liberia and Sierra Leone and through diplomatic sagacity in Guinea and Sao Tome and Principe.

Previously, our interventions aimed to stabilize and ensure order in the ECOWAS zone. The primary impetus then may have been mostly economic. In recent times, our strategic interest has been sharpened by recent developments both at home and in the wider world. When we first went into Liberia and Sierra Leone, we were under military dictatorship. So the interest was economic and security.

We are now a subsisting democracy with close to 20 unbroken years of civilian-to-civilian transitions, no matter how untidy. Other democracies have sprouted in the sub region and seem to be enduring: Ghana, Togo, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali and even Burkina Faso. We have therefore acquired a responsibility to protect and also project democratic order and culture in the sub-region.

We also more critically now find ourselves in the forefront of the global war against terror both against sectarian fundamentalism and extractive industry piracy within the Gulf of Guinea coastal theatre. Both the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea define the territorial parameters of this engagement while the interests coincide with those of major global stakeholders. Therefore, any political developments that are likely to complicate these two engagements threaten our national existence and strategic interests. These two engagements also furnish a convergence between Nigeria’s national interest and the larger strategic interests of our development partners, especially the United States and the European Union.

I share the optimism that ECOWAS will succeed with diplomacy in the resolution of the Gambian crisis. But I also share the trepidation of informed analysts who are busy reading Jammeh as a typical African despot. The United States State Department has issued a travel warning and expressed readiness to evacuate its nationals from the Gambia any time now. European countries have followed suit. I hope Nigeria has in place a coherent contingency arrangement to extract our nationals from the Gambia. If Jammeh stands down, all is well that could end well. But I fear that he will not stand down.

In that frightening prospect, the options for Buhari and ECOWAS narrow down drastically and quickly. It may become necessary to take measures aimed at discouraging Mr. Jammeh from further political bad behavior. That is shorthand for a limited armed intervention with one broad objective: to create an environment in which the winner of Gambia’s Presidential election is sworn in on schedule and the polity is made stable to complete an orderly transition of power from Mr. Yaya Jammeh to Mr. Adamu Barrow. The primary pre-requisite for success in this regard is the personal safety and security of the President-elect. This has to be followed by the neutralization of pro-Jammeh forces and the possible extraction and rendition of Mr. Jammeh himself to a destination of his own choice.

•Dr. Chidi Amuta is the Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates, Lagos.