‘Operation Restore Democracy’ Raises Hopes and Demands Across Africa

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh was pressured to leave office by ECOWAS. Public Domain photo by the White House uploaded online by Wikipedia user Alifazal.

Internet users have welcomed the decision by the Economic Cooperation of West African States (ECOWAS) to intervene in the Gambia, pressuring Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to go into exile after losing last month's election. Energized by this move, Africans on social media are now criticizing the region's other international groups for failing to remove other “dictators” who have long ruled throughout Africa.

Internet users have put tough questions to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the East African Community (EAC), and the continental body the African Union (AU), among others.

In an intervention codenamed “Operation Restore Democracy,” ECOWAS threatened to remove Jammeh by force, ultimately pressuring former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to go into exile. Jammeh, who ruled the Gambia for 22 years, lost elections last month to Adama Barrow. After initially accepting defeat, Jammeh later refused to step down, citing supposed voting irregularities.

Jammeh met with several West African leaders, before a last-ditch peaceful mediation effort, after ECOWA's deadline first expired. He was then given one last chance before ECOWAS said it would deploy an armed monitoring group stationed just outside the capital, Banjul, that would force him from office. Finally, the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania convinced Jammeh to leave the country.

New President Adama Barrow returned to the Gambia on Jan. 26 after being inaugurated at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal. This was the first time an African president has ever been sworn in on foreign soil.

Following the ECOWAS’ success, Africans have singled out groups like SADC and AU for allowing Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe to stay in power. Nkurunziza changed the constitution in 2015 to allow him to remain in office for a third term, and Mugabe, who is believed to have lost an election to Morgan Tsvivangarai, also retained his presidency.

On Twitter, “Sure Kamhunga” asked:

Castro Ngobese asked the SADC to take action against President Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Kabila's last term in office was supposed to end in December, but he's still in office, arguing that the elections cannot be held now because of logistical and financial problems. A deal reached between the government and opposition parties has it that elections will be held at the end of 2017 and Kabila will step down afterward (a year after his second term expired).

“Zimbabwean Patriot!” shared a cartoon mocking SADC and Zimbabwean President Mugabe:

Some Africans are even suggesting that the next chairperson of the AU should come from West Africa. Muhereza Allan wrote:

The AU will elect its next chairperson at the end of January.

‘ECOWAS is out here teaching EAC and SADC a lesson’

Referring to the 2008 disputed elections in Zimbabwe, McIntosh Polela wrote:

After the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, SADC-led negotiations resulted into a power-sharing government, where Mugabe remained president and the main opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai served as prime minister.

Waiswa Batambuze wants regional bodies to be strengthened as a first priority:

David Lewis observed:

Ilunga Ntengu pointed out countries in East and Southern Africa that must be watching the events in the Gambia:

‘Ecowas and SADC are two very different African interstate organizations’

Despite overwhelming support for ECOWAS, Zimbabwean Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo — a supporter of Robert Mugabe, 92, who has been in power since 1980 — thought the inauguration of Gambian President Adama Barrow in Senegal was a circus and an embarrassment:

Chris Danga responded to Moyo:

While acknowledging that comparisons between regional bodies is good, Zimbabwen blogger Takura Zhangazha noted that context matters:

What is however missed is that Ecowas and SADC are two very different African inter-state organizations. Not just by way of their historical development but also in relation to the fact that they have always tended to act differently on the continental stage especially after they were both reformed in the early 1990s, Ecowas 1993 and SADC 1992 to make them much more formal and more concerned in members states affairs. Especially where it concerns their respective regional economies and trade.

Zhangazha continued:

But thankfully ECOWAS and SADC are from the same Pan African womb. They however tend to act differently and have a different history of interaction with global powers. Sadc, having its foundation in the liberation struggle era of the Frontline States has a history of solidarity between liberation movements and was never going to abandon that in the face of the regional behemoth that was Apartheid South Africa.

Ecowas, with member states that have experienced greater periods of national independence and inundated with Cold War battles for control of natural resources such as petroleum was always more nuanced and divided in its global relations. Things are therefore not so Manichean. Nor are they easily excusable or a matter of pitting one African region against another.

Looking at lessons Southern African countries can learn from ECOWAS,  (an emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town) and  (a professor in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria) pointed out that SADC does not have a military force. They further offered some history on SADC interventions:

The only case that somewhat resembled events around The Gambia was South Africa’s intervention in Lesotho in September 1998. Nominally under SADC, that intervention’s goal was to ensure the incumbent ruler was not ousted by opposition forces.

Three SADC member states did intervene militarily in the DRC in August 1998. Troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe were deployed, nominally under the umbrella of SADC. The goal was to aid the then president, Laurent Desiré Kabila, against rebels who had invaded the eastern Congo. Kabila would not have been able to consolidate himself in power without the military support of the three SADC states.

Both interventions were controversial within SADC, since they were not based on a common decision by the member states. These were at that time marred by the rivalry between Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. This may help explain why there have not been any similar military interventions since.

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