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Does The Gambia still need ECOWAS?

Sankulleh Janko | Omar Wally (Banjul)
September 25, 2020

President Adama Barrow asked ECOWAS to extend the mandate of its military intervention. The regional bloc has obliged. It may be a sign Barrow is expecting trouble over the rejection of a new constitution.

President Adama Barrow
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Longari

Gambia's President Adama Barrow has asked the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to extend the mandate of the military intervention it deployed during the country's constitutional crisis in 2017.

The move raises questions over whether he expects issues with the binned new draft constitution that limits presidential terms.

The Economic Community of West African States Mission in Gambia (ECOMIG) was mobilized during a constitutional crisis sparked by a disputed presidential election in late 2016. Barrow ultimately replaced strongman leader Yahya Jammeh who had refused to step down and became Gambia's president in January 2017.

At an ECOWAS summit in Niger on September 7, the bloc agreed to extend the mission. Barrow had already asked that the mission, which paved the way for his rise to power, to continue its work for one more year, citing the ECOWAS soldiers as a stabilizing presence in country.

"Given the reforms underway and the need to protect the fragile democracy in The Gambia, I avail myself this privilege to request for the extension of the mandate of ECOMIG in Gambia," he told ECOWAS in June.

A protest in Banjul, Gambia
Gambians took to the streets in December 2019, urging President Adama Barrow to step down after 3 years in powerImage: DW/O. Wally

However, not all Gambians agree that the mission should stay put. Some are questioning why the country's army cannot step up. Gambian army spokesman Major Lamin K. Sanyang denied that the army was "dormant," as some citizens are saying.

"The presence of ECOMIG does not make Gambian armed forces dormant," he told DW. "The reason is Gambian armed forces' mandate and that of ECOMIG are totally different."

Is President Barrow feeling unsafe?

A provision in the 1997 Constitution mandates the armed forces to protect and defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Gambia against external aggression.

"We are capable of handling the security of Gambia," explained Sanyang. "So, it means that gradually we will get to the point that the ECOMIG forces at State House will be completely replaced by Gambian sons and daughters in charge of protecting the president."

Reviewing the 1997 Constitution has been a fraught and costly process. Public debate on the draft constitution has coincided with the contentious issue of Barrow's term in office. 

Read more: Gambia's draft law restricts presidential terms

Barrow's extension of the ECOMIG came as the draft Constitution — Constitutional Promulgation Bill — was presented to lawmakers in Gambia. On September 22, the National Assembly in Banjul rejected the draft that would have prevented Barrow from holding office beyond two terms.

After two days of intense debate in Parliament, it was Barrow's deputy allies who rejected the draft constitution.

The nation was glued to their television sets as Mariam Jack Denton, the speaker of Parliament read out the votes: "These are the results — the ayes 31, the noes 23. The votes of the honorable members supporting the reading of the bill fell short of the threshold of 42 members."

'Back to the drawing board'

Gambia consulted widely and spent over $2 million (€1.72 million) on the constitutional review process which was supposed to lead to a referendum if Parliament subsequently adopted the bill. The process was intended to complete  Gambia's transition from a dictatorship to full democracy. 

Read more: Gambians get behind a movement to hold their leader to his word

Many Gambians expressed their anger over the outcome, saying their wishes and aspirations for the future of their country were outlined in the bill.

"It's a slap in the face," Momodou Bah, a Banjul resident told DW. "I think it's a progressive constitution. The majority of what we have been advocating for is included."

A younger resident, Essa Barry said the Parliament is "not worth their salt."

"I am disappointed like every other genuine Gambian," he told DW. "This is why people like us should take responsibility and participate in politics."

Yahya Jammeh
Yahya Jammeh was The Gambia's leader for more than two decades before he was oustedImage: picture-alliance/AP/Rebecca Blackwell

 Gambia has only one option now, according to Justice Minister and Attorney General Dawda Jallow: "This draft will have to go back to the drawing board and we have a second attempt if you completely reject it and do not allow it to go to the committee for consideration."

Read more: Anger in Gambia as the extent of Jammeh-era corruption and brutality surfaces

New constitution equals full democracy

Sait Matty Jaw, a political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia, said the failure of the bill marks a missed opportunity for the country to transition to true democracy.

"Everybody was looking forward to a new Gambia," he said. "For me, there cannot be a new Gambia without a new constitution."

Gambia is now effectively stuck with the 1997 constitution, he explained: "President Barrow will still have the same power. I don't look at the individual but at the institution that governs them, and right now it is the institution that still gives the president excessive power."

The international community had urged Gambia to pass the bill, which also included provisions that would have seen the youth and women at the center of political decision making.

Read more: Gambians get behind a movement to hold their leader to his word

A group of young people in The Gambia watch a DW presentation
DW spoke with young Gambians who are increasingly concerned over their country's uncertain futureImage: Lucy Dörthe Weller

Gambian youth express security concerns

Young Gambians in particular have been increasingly concerned about the security situation in the country since the ECOMIG extension was decided. 

Oley Faal, who is in her 30s, said she would like the West African forces to leave.

"When I say internal security, I mean they are not responsible for the crime rate," she told DW. "They seem to be responsible for the presidency."

For resident Lamin Tamba, keeping the soldiers in the country makes no sense. "In the state of nation address, President Barrow said Gambian security services are keeping the peace and keeping Gambians safe right now," he told DW. "So why then do we need peacekeepers in Gambia?"

However, another young Gambian, Malick M. Jarju, thinks ECOMIG needs to remain on. "I think they need to stay beyond 2021," he told DW. "The truth is some of these people are still loyal to the former regime."

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