Mustapha Kah & Alieu Bangura: Peace in The Gambia needs more than booths

The recent expansion of the mandate of the Economic Community of West African States Military Intervention better known as ECOMIG comes at a controversial and sensitive moment in The Gambia. The expansion was announced a day following clashes between the international forces and the supporters of ousted former President Jammeh in his home village, Kanilai.

The message from this mandate expansion is clear- The Gambia’s security situation is still delicate and needs international support to sustain. Kanilai is located in the perimeter between The Gambia and Southern Senegal, where separatists have been belligerent against the Senegalese Government for many decades.

The ECOMIG troops were sent to The Gambia following December 1st 2016 elections in which Jammeh was defeated by a candidate from the opposition coalition of eight parties led by President Adama Barrow. Jammeh who had ruled the country for 22 years with an iron fist conceded defeat on December 2nd calling it the “Will of Allah.”

But a week later as the opposition was preparing to meet him, Jammeh retorted to his old impulsive ways announcing on state TV, GRTS, that he was rescinding his concession amidst what he said was tangible evidence of voter swindle. This is despite declaring shortly before the elections that The Gambia’s voting system is “rig proof,” and it’s the best electoral system in the world.

ECOWAS right away dispatched a negotiating team to the country headed by ECOWAS chair, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The team also included Nigerian president, Muhammadou Buhari and then Ghana President, John Dramani Mahama. The team over several attempts tried to persuade Jammeh to admit defeat, but to no avail.

He vacated power at the last minute due to the eminence of intervention by the regional troops, and now in exile in Equatorial Guinea. Since then, the regional forces have been dispatched in the country, to secure and stabilize the nation. They mainly comprise Senegalese forces and only 500 of the initial 7000 strong man force have remained.

Unfortunately, while most of The Gambia accepts their presence, many in the Foni region of the country have resisted their incidence. This partly explains the recent fracas between the troops and residents of Kanilai. Most in Foni hail from the same Jola ethnic group with Jammeh.

According to the protesters, they have not been at ease since the troops began being stationed there. “We have not been at ease with the troops since Ex-President Jammeh left Kanilai and the troops got stationed here,” said Malamin Bojang a relative of Jammeh, during an interview with a local paper called Foroyaa.

It is difficult to know the accurate number of protesters, but one Haruna Jatta was reported dead, whilst 5 others were injured. The interior Minister Mai Ahmed Fatty announced on state TV that an investigation will be opened to determine the cause of the protests.

ECOWAS released a statement condemning the violence and calling for calm. “The ECOWAS Commission strongly condemns all forms of violence, presents its condolences to the family of the victim and wishes those injured a swift and complete recovery,” the regional group said in a statement

The reaction has been welcomed by many Gambians. This is because, if it were not for the looming threat of a military intervention, it is difficult to see how Jammeh would have left office. One reason the force must continue staying in the country after the demise of dictator Jammeh is that Jammeh has well entrenched supporters within many sections of our population including the national security forces.

In just few weeks after he lost elections, Jammeh elevated 50 military personnel to various positions. It may well be that not all the 50 promoted officers were his supporters, but videos of soldiers sobbing and fainting as Jammeh left the country for exile in Equatorial Guinea are enough proof that he still enjoyed widespread support among the army, and this support was what enabled him to have a firm grip of the country even after losing December 1st elections.

However, it should be noted that solving The Gambia’s teething military challenges requires more than West African booths on the ground. The security challenges faced by the country are diverse and require other policy options to solve. The Government must also invest in peace and reconciliation.

Here, the country could learn from Nelson Mandela in his Truth and Reconciliation Commission established after the end of Apartheid. There is no gainsaying that those who violated the law must be made to face the consequences.

But realistically speaking, the reason why Mandela holds the keys to solving the country’s security challenges is that when he came to power in 1994 after decades of brutal Apartheid he could have used muscle and the stick to settle decades of longstanding conflict. But he chose to look the other way. He was matured enough to understand that wisdom required him to tread lightly and with caution. Today, South Africa is benefitting from his policy of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The international community must not lose sight of the fact that part of the resistance from Jammeh’s supporters in the region is due to the fact that they got free food, electricity, water, and education amongst others from him. This problem can’t also be tackled by booths. The Government has to engage the Foni people through their elected National Assembly Members, Village Heads, and community members in a dialogue that emphasizes the fact that Jammeh is gone and gone for good. Nothing will bring him back at least in the foreseeable future.

The second part of engaging Jammeh loyalists is to assure them that they are also part of a bigger Gambian family in which one can’t move forward without the other. Poverty eradication programmes and development incentives could be the trick to convince them that the presence of the ECOMIC forces is not a witch-hunting exercise, but an attempt to ensure that our democracy works for all and sundry who call this beautiful country home.