By: Wonderr Koryenen Freeman
Former President Yahya Jammeh
Yahya Jammeh has finally left The Gambia – of course with so much credit to the resolve of ECOWAS that the will of the Gambia people must be respected. Is this Africa coming of age or is this just an aberration for a continent better known for its failures and misadventures? Jammeh started out with the old dictator refrain of non-interference and chest-pounding of his ability to fend off any invasion by ECOWAS’ forces. Of course, Yahya Jammeh, the functional illiterate with a penchant for grandstanding and the bizarre, doesn’t understand that the workings of international law weren’t particularly tuned to his circumstances. In this essay, I shall expound on a few of these circumstances and the lessons one can draw from them.
Lesson 1 – International law is law for small states and politics for big and powerful states
When one thinks of laws of whatever kind, whether international or domestic, it’s a system of rules and regulations that assures peace, stability and certainty, which is mandatory, and when violated, leads to sanctions. Well, that assertion is both true and false. For the big and powerful states, international law is more like international politics – more of the wheeling and dealing without the sting of the law. So a big and powerful nation get to carve out a piece of territory of a neighboring state, with near total impunity (as in the case of Russia and Ukraine) or where a state can flout the rules (as in the Geneva convention and the prisoner of war status) and create its own version of the rules (as in the case of the USA and foreign terrorist fighters whom the USA calls “enemy combatants”, hence not entitled to the benefits of the Geneva Convention). Of course the US has continued propound their own version of international law in Guantanamo with only murmurs coming from the rest of the international community. Unfair? Yes! But that’s the reality. But if you are The Gambia – a nation of only 2 million and an army of 2000 men, totally surrounded by another state, you don’t have that privilege – the privilege to create your own version of international law. If you failed to do the acceptable (like cheat first and let the opposition go to court, as in Gabon and Zimbabwe), you will not be permitted to flagrantly deny the results once released (or else you end up at the ICC like Gbagbo). It’s an important lesson in international law and, hopefully, Jammeh will learn that in exile.
Lesson 2 – Africa microstates need powerful supranational regional groups to tackle shared problems and transnational challenges
My African states are states only in name, with many failing in one or more of the cardinal prerequisite for the recognition as a state. Sovereignty for most of these states is an illusion. Many lack even the barest modicum of independence – be it economic, military, educational, scientific, or agricultural independence). The solution to the illusion of statehood prevalent of the continent – without the total loss of sovereignty – is to band together in regional blocs like ECOWAS, which can supplant states’ capacity without taking away core elements of statehood. Like the recent case in The Gambia has taught us, a powerful regional bloc, not shy to flex its muscles can solve the problem of stolen elections and other national problems with the potential for transnational destabilization of the region. The sheer resoluteness of ECOWAS made it possible for the Gambia crisis to be solved with the firing of a single bullet. Will ECOWAS have the same resoluteness, for example, to attack the issue of youth unemployment, corruption, and freedom of movement [to include the freedom to work wherever in the region]? Can a Liberian or Guinean medical doctor or lawyer practice in Ghana without the skies falling down in Accra? Will ECOWAS push for common regional standards in education and other professional spheres with the same vigor with which it evicted Jammeh?
Lesson 3 – A stable and progressive regional hegemon is a sine qua non for a powerful regional bloc
A regional bloc is really nothing without a stable, prosperous, forward thinking and well-governed regional hegemon. Think of a European Union without Germany or a SADC without South Africa. The same holds true for ECOWAS and the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But for many years, powerful Nigeria, the regional hegemon, was held back by corruption, mismanagement and misrule. Not surprisingly the Boko Haram itch, which should have been no more than a misdemeanor criminal adventure ended up threatening the very existence of the state. As corruption became the status quo, not even the military was spared, thereby undermining military morale and denting capacity. Fast forward to the Nigeria of today, we have a stable, progressive role model for states of the region. With a forward-thinking and well-governed regional hegemon, as in the case of Nigeria in ECOWAS, microstates like Gambia are not permitted to misbehave in such a manner as to create unnecessary problems for the region. ECOWAS can harness the strength of Nigeria and forge a powerful supranational and developmental brand of regionalism quite distinct from the pomp and pageantry of state relations of yesteryears.
I have shown in this piece that international law can be beneficial to microstates and can form the basis for stability and development in a region. However, for this state of affairs to be assured, there needs be a power regional bloc backed by a stable, prosperous, and well-governed regional hegemon as ECOWAS and Nigeria has recently proven in the Gambian political crisis. Come to think of it, Africa hasn’t got much of an alternative, really.