By Mina Shah
The political situation in The Gambia has been especially tense ever since the most recent elections: The current president, Yahya Jammeh, who has held office for over two decades, lost to the opposition candidate, Adama Barrow. While initially Jammeh had said that he would accept the election results, he is now contesting them by appealing to the country’s Supreme Court. This is worrisome, because if Jammeh continues to resist relinquishing his power when the time comes for transition with the inauguration of Barrow this Thursday, there could be violence in The Gambia.
Many international bodies, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN), are opposed to Jammeh’s latest power grab. Those three bodies have issued a joint statement, encouraging Jammeh to step down. In addition, there are other international bodies who feel similarly, though they are more concerned with de-escalating potential conflict situations than bringing Jammeh to justice. Nigerian MPs are now at a point where they are willing to grant asylum to Jammeh if he steps down from power.
In a lot of ways, the international community must be wary of how this situation progresses. Jammeh and officials under him have a history of human rights abuses, which should concern other governing bodies. Jammeh’s government has long targeted particular groups, including journalists, political opponents, human rights advocates and LGBTQ+ individuals, who regularly disappear or report being tortured. If we look at the steps of genocide, these disappearances and the targeting of groups can be early warning signs. Genocide might not be in the works in so far as it might be proved in a court of law, though. It is even more likely that the situation could escalate to levels that could qualify as mass atrocities, which are defined less specifically under international law. If it does escalate, according to Obama’s Presidential Study Directive 10, intervening in situations of mass atrocity is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. Thus, if it does escalate, the U.S. may end up intervening in a conflict.
The fact that Nigeria’s government is ready to offer asylum to Jammeh is good, because it demonstrates a commitment to resolving the situation peacefully. The potential for peace is greater if this ends up happening, because Jammeh has less at stake when he gives up the presidency. Instead of potentially needing to fight to protect himself, he has a safer out, which could save many more lives than just his. However, it also means that if Jammeh steps down, he could potentially not be held accountable for his actions. If he is outside the jurisdiction of the legal system in The Gambia, he cannot be prosecuted by the people whom he most harmed.
Since the specter of violence looms over The Gambia, it may seem like there is very little hope with regard to this political tension. However, this coalition of international organizations collectively speaking out against Jammeh’s continued hold on power is encouraging. The recommendations of the Atrocities Prevention Board for the next U.S. commander in chief state that one of the most important things with relation to prevention is regional strength. The fact that all of these international bodies, some of which (namely ECOWAS and the AU), are actors in the region, meaning that it is possible that intervention from international bodies further away might be unnecessary.
All of these aforementioned international bodies are also interested in keeping any interventions peaceful in so far as that is possible. Though ECOWAS initially had proposed sending troops to The Gambia to force Jammeh out of power, it has since changed its stance on military intervention. While this is potentially bad because it means that there is less chance that Jammeh will indeed give up power, it is good in that there is no chance that any violence might be incited by ECOWAS.
The other potentially positive aspect of this situation’s timing is that it is still possible for the international community to mitigate any potential violence. Social psychological research on the topic of atrocity prevention, while limited, suggests that it is possible to offset the impulse to mass violence via different mechanisms. These include encouraging inter-group communication and circulating ideas about the importance of having empathy toward all people on the basis of shared humanity. The situation in The Gambia could be a good opportunity for the Atrocity Prevention Board to demonstrate that it can actually work despite having received so much criticism for alleged failures regarding its delayed reaction to the human rights abuses and atrocities in Syria.
The situation in The Gambia is certainly one to keep our eyes on. It could be extremely instructive for the U.S., the U.N., the AU and ECOWAS with regard to contemporary and future atrocity prevention.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.