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On December 20, 2022, The Gambia experienced yet another coup d’état attempt, its fifth since its 1965 independence from the United Kingdom. The Gambia has had three presidents in its brief history, a fact allowed by both the lack of term limits for presidents and the successful coup staged by Yahya Jammeh, who overthrew The Gambia’s first democratically elected president, Dawda Jawara, in 1994. After Mr. Jammeh took control of the Gambian government, he ruled with an iron fist, outlawing opposition and suspending the constitution to grant him more power.
Free from widespread internal and external scrutiny, Mr. Jammeh continued to win elections every five years, solidifying his power and raising the possibility that he would rule The Gambia until he died, likely planning a successor that would continue his autocracy. However, the presidential election of 2016 shocked the Gambian political system with the surprise victory of opposition candidate Adama Barrow over Mr. Jammeh. In true autocratic fashion, Mr. Jammeh refused to accept the results of the election (after initially acknowledging Mr. Barrow’s victory), prompting the intervention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a fifteen-nation union that often serves as a peacekeeping force in the West African region.
Mr. Barrow was sworn in as president of The Gambia on January 19, 2017, and Mr. Jammeh was forced into exile in Guinea before ending up in Equatorial Guinea. Mr. Barrow has relied on ECOWAS forces that remain in The Gambia to maintain stability, which may be destabilizing the country as some come to resent continued foreign interference in national affairs.
The Gambia’s tumultuous political climate came to a head on December 20, 2022, when a lance corporal and several other soldiers in the Gambia Armed Forces attempted to overthrow Mr. Barrow’s democratically elected administration. While this attempted coup proved unsuccessful, it comes at a time when Africa has been dealing with serious democratic backsliding, with numerous coups this year, with varying degrees of success.
Domestic political uncertainty has become a continent-wide issue, and The Gambia has joined the list of countries confronting serious governmental problems, a situation that is often a breeding ground for more coup attempts and violence. The Gambia’s history has been punctuated with relatively frequent political chaos, and this most recent coup attempt demonstrates that democracy, even when achieving victories, is never fully secure.
1994 coup d’état
After five years of independence, The Gambia elected its first president, Dawda Jawara, in 1970. Mr. Jawara did not want to rapidly change his country; instead, he decided to forgo elaborate construction projects for more incremental changes, including welcoming political dissent and the public expression of opposition. Mr. Jawara’s strategy of slow changes disillusioned communist Gambians, whose Gambia Socialist Revolutionary Party (GSRP) was outlawed in 1980. Led by Marxist Kukoi Samba Sanyang, the Gambia Underground Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (GUSRWP) led an unsuccessful coup d’état in 1981 while Mr. Jawara was in London attending the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.
After the Marxist coup was defeated, The Gambia and neighboring Senegal created the Senegambia Confederation in 1982 to promote cooperation between the two countries. The Senegalese president served as the president of Senegambia, while Mr. Jawara served as vice president of Senegambia. The confederation dissolved in 1989 over disagreements about the purpose of the union, but its existence at all makes clear that Mr. Jawara took control of his country’s politics and sought to forge productive foreign relations to advance national interests.
Mr. Jawara’s incrementalism spawned the 1981 attempted coup, and the same anti-Jawara sentiment carried over into the new decade. In 1994, then-Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh staged a bloodless coup with the backing of the the Gambia Armed Forces, ousting Mr. Jawara from power and beginning 22 years of autocracy that witnessed the rapid regression of Gambian democracy.
While starting as a mutiny over lack of pay and other governmental deficiencies, the events of July 22, 1994, quickly morphed into a coup d’état. After forces loyal to Mr. Jammeh seized the airport, state radio station, and power station, Mr. Jawara fled to the USS La Moure County, which coincidentally anchored off the coast of The Gambia. Mr. Jawara would settle in London after temporarily docking in Dakar, Senegal.
With newfound control of the country, Mr. Jammeh established the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), a military body, as the ruling government. He sought to stifle dissent by banning opposition parties and severely restricting press rights. Upon the arrival of the 1996 presidential election, he turned the AFPRC into the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), a political party that propelled him to victory in the election. He would go on to win the next three elections.
Besides that of Mr. Jawara himself, no major internal or external forces criticized this coup, with no nation supporting Mr. Jawara’s claim to the presidency after his overthrow. But Mr. Jammeh would eventually face the same threats to his administration as his predecessor, and in the same form that brought him to power.
2014 coup d’état attempt
On December 30, 2014, Mr. Jammeh was confronted with a crisis that mirrored the one Mr. Jawara faced on July 22, 1994. While Mr. Jammeh was abroad, Lieutenant Colonel Lamin Sanneh attacked the State House in the capital of Banjul. Mr. Sanneh was removed as commander of the Presidential Guard in 2013, and he was able to amass support among some members of the Gambia Armed Forces to overthrow Mr. Jammeh’s government. He entered The Gambia from Senegal and began his insurrection.
After gunfire rang out in the capital, the government initiated a state radio and television blackout as it sought to quash the coup. Mr. Jammeh’s government was successful in putting down the coup attempt, though with bloodshed that Mr. Jammeh’s 1994 coup lacked. Four people, including Mr. Sanneh, died in the attempted overthrow of the government, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided the homes of the alleged coup participants in the United States and charged two others for their roles in plotting the coup.
Following this most serious threat to his grip on power, Mr. Jammeh reshuffled his cabinet to ensure complete loyalty to his regime. He was setting himself up for a lifetime in power, and this coup attempt threatened his goal of complete control of Gambian politics. But rather than violence ending his regime, democracy soon did.
2016 election and constitutional crisis
Mr. Jammeh was running for president for a fifth time in 2016, and with his control of the media and tight grip on political opposition, he appeared to be a shoo-in for reelection yet again. But in a shocking upset, outsider Adama Barrow defeated Mr. Jammeh by a margin of 3.65 percent of the vote with the Coalition 2016, which comprised seven political parties. Mr. Barrow’s victory marked the first transfer of power by popular election since Mr. Jawara became The Gambia’s first president in 1970. But this transfer did not come without comflict.
Despite initially accepting defeat and conceding to Mr. Barrow, Mr. Jammeh rejected the election results and called for a new election held under “god-fearing and independent electoral commission.” Mr. Jammeh proved unable to cope with a loss of power, and he was effectively willing to stage a self-coup to stage in power. Mr. Barrow refused to let Mr. Jammeh’s power overwhelm the democratic will of the people, though, and he was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Dakar.
To support the reestablishment of democracy in The Gambia, ECOWAS entered the country on the same day as Mr. Barrow’s inauguration. Outnumbered, Mr. Jammeh resigned from the presidency and left The Gambia for exile in Equatorial Guinea on January 21, 2017.
As opposed to the global indifference to Mr. Jammeh’s rise to power in his coup over Mr. Jawara, the international community widely recognized Mr. Barrow as the legitimate president, with the U.S. supporting ECOWAS intervention and the UK and South Africa calling on Mr. Jammeh to resign.
But ECOWAS did not step out of Gambian politics with the removal of Mr. Jammeh from office; in fact, Mr. Barrow has advocated for the continued presence of troops to maintain national order, to the dismay of some who consider such plans akin to foreign occupation.
Mr. Barrow won reelection in 2021, but just as the two presidents that came before him, he has had to face an attempted coup, this time on December 20, 2022.
2022 coup d’état attempt
A relatively small group of Gambia Armed Forces soldiers, led by Lance Corporal Sanna Fadera, attempted a coup against Mr. Barrow’s government. Unlike the previous coups and coup attempts, this one did not result in any deaths and did not overthrow the elected government. Limited information is known about the people behind the attempted coup and the events associated with it, and the Gambian military has denied that any coup took place, possibly because it was perpetrated by members in its ranks.
But the lack of substantial change to Gambian politics with this attempted coup does not discount the attempt’s broader meaning. If Gambian — and African — democratic history is any predictor of the future, Mr. Barrow must be prepared to face more serious threats in the future, be them foreign or domestic.
Instability of African democracy
The Gambia had been heralded as a beacon for democracy on the African continent, especially after the democratic ousting (albeit with foreign military intervention) of a dictator who came to power by overthrowing a democratically elected president. But The Gambia’s 2022 coup attempt comes at a time when Africa is facing an extraordinary amount of coup d’états and coup attempts. Ineffective governments are unable to protect their own people, as seen in this summer’s explosion in Togo that killed seven children, which was actually committed by the Togolese military.
With governments falling to coups in West Africa and the Sahel in particular, the region is at a heightened risk for jihadist terror attacks, a threat several countries have sought to confront with the Accra Initiative. But threats to regional stability do not just come from outside forces, and the continued presence of ECOWAS forces in The Gambia may lead people to believe that Mr. Barrow is simply a figurehead for a government run by foreign actors.
After years as president and a successful reelection campaign, Mr. Barrow must take control of his country by relying on forces from within. This does not mean Mr. Barrow should isolate The Gambia from the suggestions and assistance of other countries in the region, but it does mean that he must prove to his constituents that The Gambia is governed by a Gambian who is not beholden to foreign influence. Without confidence in the effectiveness of the government, the threat of larger and more violent coups only grows; that is a prospect The Gambia must strive to avoid.