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.

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  • FrNinja

    Gambia provides Buhari the perfect opportunity to bolster his image and that of flagging Nigeria in the region and on the continent by marshalling Ecowas troops in and booting Jammeh out of Banjul. It would be better PR than Independence day festivities. Perfect for the strongman, the headlines on world newspapers would be Ecowas led by no nonsense Buhari saves Gambian democracy. The Nigerian military will regain its respect in the sub-region. Of course, the stumbling block will be Senegal which is itching to lead the charge to invade its next door neighbour and boot Jammeh out.

  • Maigari

    The point of using the ‘muscle’ has somewhat been deleted by the Gambian supreme court. The Court ruled that there are not enough judges to sit and hear the case brought by Jammeh. In the interim, the Court literally voided the elections that defeated Jammeh-a Nigerian style judgement- and allows him to rule until there is quorum in the Court. The ball now is firmly in the ECOWAS hands but the hands have been tied from behind by the Gambian Supreme Court.

  • Gary

    That Jammeh needs to step down for the duly elected leader of Gambia to be sworn into office, is not in dispute.

    Whether Nigeria has the moral or military wherewithal to lead this effort is at issue.

    Unless surgically excised from power, there’s a real possibility that the Islamic fanatic Mullah Yahya Jammeh will resort to a Boko Haram style insurgency that will roil The Gambia for years to come and undermine its tourism-dependent economy.

    The opposition must share in the blame for this situation by their unbridled utterances about putting the dictator on trial in the euphoria of winning the election without being sworn into office.

    The best case scenario now is to offer Jammeh a generous pension and safe passage to a haven far from the country for him to live out his years in exile as did fellow dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin and Mengistu Haile-Mariam of Ethiopia.

  • Dunu Anselm

    Mr. Amuta’s suggestion for a military action on the Gambia is really worrisome. Our tiny neighbours are now wiser. The rag tag army of boko haram has exposed our military weakness so much so that we don’t command much respect any more. Diplomacy is equally out of it because we don’t have the moral levers to exact that force when we don’t respect the verdicts of the courts established by the same ECOWAS which platform we intend launching the diplomatic actions. A leader must strive to be above board all the time so as to be respected but we failed all the test of leadership in our sub region. Is it in the way we run our affairs or the undiplomatic utterances of our leaders.
    The best thing to do is to stay by the side and allow Gambians to sort out their problem before we confound it for them. Amuta is living in the past. Nigeria now is not Nigeria of yesterday. Any military adventure engaged by this government will definitely rub our ego in the mud because we will be roundly defeated. A word is enough for the wise.

  • remm ieet

    By now Nigeria’s regional influence should have grown to the point that we should be able to scare Yahyah Jammeh out of office, without stress. But our recent activities indicate that we have lost our bite in all this type of regional level manoeuvres. We used to command respect during the Abacha era.
    Yahyah Jammeh is trying to impress on us that he is in charge, having been in power long enough for building a military base to withstand external agression. That he refused to go even with the plea of Nigeria’s president says a lot about how he thinks of us. Otherwise what is he still doing there? He knows we have lost the moral right to harass him.

  • “Korede

    No matter what anybody says, Jammeh has no legitmimate right to be in power beyond January 19th 2017. He can still continue to pursue justice through the court but he must hand over to the president elect. This is the right thing to do. If he does not do that, he should be reminded of the plight of Laurent Gbagbo who defied moral standard when he lost election in Ivory coast.

    • Toby

      We will send you to the Gambia to remind him.

      • “Korede

        What does this suppose to mean? Just wanted to comment?

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  • Thompson Iyeye

    Chidi Amuta is in a subtle way flying the kite of military action by Nigeria against the strongman of Gambia, justifying such intervention with terrorism, ISIS and whatever. The joke is that he puts the cart before the horse, by so doing. It was precisely such military misadventures by foreign countries that created and nurtured terrorism and ISIS, in the first place. We should learn from history and avoid history repeating itself.

    All we need do in the circumstance as a country, is cajole Jammeh to leave, providing him with a soft landing when he leaves. We have no right to forcefully remove him, worst still for the trumped up excuses being provided by Chidi Amuta. It is entirely up to the people of Gambia.

  • Michael Kadiri SocioPolitical

    It is Nigeria’s FIRST ‘involvement’ in The Gambia’s affairs which brought Jammeh into office that is going to cause the SECOND involvement that you are now clamouring for. i.e we should go and clean up the mess we put there in the first place.

    It is regrettable that you give some sort of legitimacy to the de-sovereignization of independent countries because you so determine that they have lost the right to govern themselves. This is intellectual arrogance and colonial thinking. The truth is that if everybody were to mind their own business in the first place, there would not be a Syrian crises, a Libyan crises, an Iraqi or Afghanistan crises amongst many other conflicts globally.

    Nature orders that ultimately a people who constitute a society and by extension a country will do what is right for them. Leave people alone to rule themselves. The world was a safer place when The Soviet Union’s power meant that we could not overtly effect regime change. Whenever we have seen a departure from this most basic societal instinct, it is because of the involvement of another country/power usually for the reasons of exploitation and thievery. Check you history.
    History will also show you that whenever you go in to sort out the mess you created in the first place, you often make things worse. Why? Because it is near nigh impossible to maintain a colonisation by force which is what you will need to do should military option be the chosen path in this instance. Violence begets violence and peace has never happened because you shoot someone or a people into obedience.

    There is also something ultimately distasteful about a prospective Nigerian involvement in The Gambia. In our own country, the democracy we are insisting upon has not paid any dividends to the people. We should not use the fact that Jammeh (a man we help put in office) has been ruthless to his people to clamour for this ‘cut and paste’ democracy that is not delivering for the peoples of Africa apart from an entitled few. If only the Iraqi’s could see the future of the Wests democracy, they might have said ‘thanks but no thanks!. If only Libyans could turn back the clock, they would have stood together with Ghadaffi to drive out those who would destroy a country, kill millions just to get the black gold.

    Nigeria should be careful. America thought that Vietnam was going to be a stroll in the park until…..
    Gambia maybe a small country but let that not cause us to make stupid assumptions!

    • Don Franco

      Dear Michael,
      Mr. Chudi Amuta is right. Are you suggesting that Sadam Hussein, a Sunni minority who gassed his own people should have been left alone to conquer Kuwait; or that Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor should have been left alone to continue to chop of ohands and arms in Liberia and Sierra Leone; nay that Field Marshall Idi Amin shouldn’t have been uprooted out of Uganda?
      I was waiting for you to insinuate or imply that Adolf Hitler should have been appeased till the end as Neville Chamberlain was advocating peace in our lifetime, even after Poland had been overrun in 1939. Do you remember that the seeds of the holocaust was first sown and perfected by the Germans by their genocide of the Herreros in the Diamond fields of Namibia, while the rest of the world stood and watched?
      Time and again, it has been proven that the only language dictators like Jammeh understand is the use of force.
      I’m disappointed that Buhari can send his jackboots against IPOB and Shiites in Zaria in a heartbeat, but take his good time to eject Jammeh out of the Gambia. E’spirit de corp, I guess.

      • Daniel Obior

        The flaw in your argument is that you have not made any distinction between external and internal situations. The Hitler, Saddam (Kuwait) situations for instance, were external and rightly dealt with externally. The Idi Amin situation was internal and dealt with internally by the Ugandans, as an example. The Gambian issue is internal and should be best dealt with internally. It is not in Nigeria’s place to interfere militarily. We should do our best to mediate to avoid bloodshed.