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The Military and ‘Democratisation’ in The Gambia: 1994–2003, Oxford: Trafford Publishing, 2006, Price £19.00. 345 pages by Ebrima Jogomai Ceesay

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

Published in 2006, this book provides an account of significant political developments in a small West African country, The Gambia, about which such information is not readily available. It is a robustly written account of the very fluid politics of The Gambia over a ten-year period from 22nd July 1994 up to 2003. The author is able to bring an enviable amount of first-hand understanding to the case at hand. He was a newspaper editor in The Gambia and also a correspondent there for the BBC. The book addresses a subject of much current interest in the wider development and policy-related literatures and much of the information makes an original contribution to knowledge in the area of democracy and military rule in The Gambia. The study thus constitutes an original contribution to the growing scholarship on The Gambia. It also makes a contribution to the existing literature on democratisation and the military in West Africa.

The book undertakes the much-needed research into recent political developments in The Gambia and sets this in the wider context of West African politics. It provides an in-depth study of events in The Gambia prior to and post 1994 and examines The Gambian case in a theoretical context pertaining to Africa in general, and the West African sub-region in particular.

The fundamental concern of this book is to determine whether it is possible for a nation to democratise under ‘military’ rule. Following the 1994 coup d’état, The Gambia had military rule until 1997. After two Presidential elections, it remained under ‘quasi-military’ rule, the military having merely been thinly disguised in civilian clothes. The central argument of this book is that in the case of The Gambia, it has not been possible to democratise under either ‘military’ or ‘quasi-military’ rule. The country is far from being democratic and the democratisation process has barely begun. The Gambia operates under an authoritarian regime with strong military overtones.

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The 1994 coup d’état in The Gambia took place at a time when most of Africa was moving towards democratisation. At the same time, The Gambia moved away from democratisation and into military dictatorship. This Gambian ‘exceptionalism’ in recent regional, continental, and global political development is explained and analysed in the book. The study presents a conceptual and empirical analysis of the recent ‘democratisation’ processes under the military and military-turned civilian regimes in The Gambia. It uses conceptual or analytical insights, drawn from the general literature on military regimes in Africa, to inform understanding of the case study. The book raises a number of very pertinent questions concerning the place of the military in a modern African polity, and the varied contexts and contested nature of this role.

The book sets out to assess the military regime that seized power in The Gambia in July 1994, and which remains in power to the present day – having formally converted itself into an “elected” civilian regime through managed elections from which the military leader emerged victorious.

It is broadly concerned with four themes: a) pre-independence politics in The Gambia, the Jawara years and the causes of his overthrow; b) the coup d’état that brought the military regime to power on 22 July 1994; c) the subsequent conduct of the military regime, with particular concern for its attempt to legitimise itself through elections; and d) the question of whether The Gambia can be regarded as a democracy, to which the author has returned a decided negative.

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Four main questions are posed. What were the causes of the military coup in The Gambia? What were the various phases of military rule? How has the military performed in office? Has The Gambia returned to a functioning democratic state following the 1996 and 2001 elections? The findings indicate that the military intervention was prompted by a combination of political, economic, and social problems in the country. The 1994 coup d’état in The Gambia is best seen as the outcome of two main variables: the societal/economic/political factors which made military intervention a possibility, set against the motivations of junior officers of the Gambia National Army to intervene in the government of The Gambia because of their own dissatisfactions and possible personal aspirations. Direct military rule was in two phases and the military’s leadership performance was poor in respect of human and civil rights in both phases, although there were some modest gains in socio-economic terms. Despite the holding of elections, The Gambia remains undemocratic.

The study is based on newspaper reports, interviews, and the author’s own experiences as a journalist in The Gambia until his departure from the country in 1996, together with published sources. The empirical element in the book is accompanied by a survey of literature in the field, notably relating to military regimes in general, and especially in Africa. The treatment of empirical developments and academic sources in the book is both descriptive and conceptual.

The ten chapters (including a general conclusion) which make up the book are logically structured; general aims and objectives, which are clearly identified in the introductory chapter, are pursued in a sustained way in the subsequent discussion. Early presentations of approach, objectives and strategy combine with overviews of pre-1994 politics and economics in the opening two chapters. Along with the summary of the circumstances surrounding the military’s intervention in politics in 1994 (Chapter 3), these serve as a prelude to the detailed evaluation of the military’s performance in government; and the circumstances, processes, and consequences of the army’s transformation into a “democratic” civilian (in reality a “quasi-military”) regime, which constitutes the middle third, and core, of the book.

The final third of the book focuses on the fortunes of both democracy and politics under a quasi-military regime and tries to draw lessons from this experience for a serious consideration of the role of the military in democratic politics. The penultimate chapter offers recommendations for deterring future coups in The Gambia and elsewhere in Africa, while a general conclusion present a cogent summary of the principal findings and conclusions.




Chapter 9

Lessons of the 1994 Coup d’etat in The Gambia

This chapter explores the implications and significance of the 1994 Coup in The Gambia and also discusses the lessons which may be drawn from the failure of the thirty-year-old democratic government of Sir Dawda Jawara. In the case of The Gambia, the failure of the civilian PPP regime to act in legitimate and responsible ways during its reign was the primary cause of the Coup: the chapter thus discusses the need for democratic institutions to be purposefully consolidated and strengthened in order to avert any suspicions of illegitimate action.

A secondary but equally crucial cause of the coup lay in the lack of properly defined objectives for the Gambian army: this lack of mission was also combined with feelings of deprivation by junior Army officers. These feelings generated considerable resentment in the Army, particularly against the Nigerians who headed it, and they helped to open the doors for junior officers to seize power when the chance came. It may be argued that when the armies of small countries such as The Gambia remain without clear objectives, and when perceptions of deprivation are allowed to develop over time, then the door is ajar for opportunistic individuals (like the junior soldiers who took over in The Gambia) to attempt a military take-over. As noted by the late John Wiseman, it is vitally important that democratic governments in Africa pay sufficient regard to the nature and quality of their institutions and to their Armies, in order to discourage coups.

As noted in Chapter 3, it may be said that there are two main schools of thought amongst political scholars on the causes of military coups: the internal and the external schools. The internal school argues that factors internal to the military carry the seeds of army intervention in civilian governments. Factors may include apparent threats to the military’s corporate interests, intra-military disagreements, personal fear and any nationalistic attributes of the military. The external school argues that factors which are external to the military are the prime causes of coups: it cites performance and legitimacy failures of civilian governments such as corruption, poor economic performance, unconstitutional behaviour and political crises.

Decalo examined the immediate and specific causes of coups in Africa and also suggested that they stemmed from two conditions (external and internal). The external causes were noted as the various failings of civilian leadership set against the destabilising effects of “social mobilisation, ethnic pluralism and rapid modernisation” Internal causes were noted as the ‘professional and organisational characteristics of African military hierarchies. Decalo later cited additional reasons for coups – ethnic rivalries, intramilitary quarrels, personal jealousies and ambitions, and personal fear. Most scholars agree that military coups throughout Africa were the result of internal and external causes, and analysis of the coup in The Gambia certainly points to this. Lefever had also categorised military interventions in Africa into four recurring demands reflecting the dominant motivation of the soldiers: the ‘security’ coup (undertaken to replace a regime judged incapable of defending the state from internal or external challenges; the ‘reform’ coup (prompted by dissatisfaction with characters and policies (but not the competence) of the regime; the ‘punitive’ coup ( a result of grievances within the military establishment) and the ‘new elite’ coup motivated by ambitious men who use the army to gain power and the material rewards and societal status associated with office). Against Lefever’s categorisations, the coup in The Gambia is seen to have elements of all four – ‘security’, ‘reform’ and ‘punitive’ and ‘new elite’. Huntington’s assertion that the most important causes of military intervention in politics are not military but political does not entirely hold true for the Gambian experience of military take-over. Although political causes were highly significant, the internal causes (within the Gambia National Army) were also critical. While political scholars admit both the internal and external causes of coups, the view of a retired senior army officer in Nigeria and also a former Head of the UN Peace Keeping Force, makes interesting reading: “coup makers have always sought to justify their unconstitutional armed intervention of governments, and have never been uneconomical with their reasons for seizing power, but in actual fact, the principal reasons for coups in Africa are insatiable greed and inordinate ambition for power”. Whether this was in fact a motivating factor in the case of Lt. Jammeh and the other junior officer coup leaders is a moot point, although Jammeh’s current apparent addiction to the ‘sweetness’ of power would certainly suggest that financial gain and political power may well have figured in his own reasoning in July 1994.

The coup leaders cited the external causes of the coup in The Gambia at the time as being paramount. Amongst them were poor government performance, allegations of corruption and incompetence, and lack of accountability and transparency in government. Complaints of this nature were common throughout Africa in both civilian and military regimes: Chazan noted that in Ghana and other African nations, “regimes have been plagued by inadequate mechanisms for policy formulation, decreasing capacity, poor performance records, dwindling legitimacy and an image of domination and repression.” and the Gambian coup leaders were at pains to stress how much the diminution of the PPP government’s legitimacy had influenced their own decision to stage the coup. Hayward stressed the significance of ‘legitimacy’: “the requirement of legitimacy is universal. Although there is great variation in the extent to which it poses a serious problem for a particular regime, its importance is almost always recognised. Even the most autocratic of states must face the imperative of legitimacy.”

Certainly, in the period prior to 1994, there had been a notable factionalism and division within the PPP and combined with the allegations of corruption, favouritism and nepotism, this undoubtedly led to a public loss of confidence in the government. Added to this were the declining economic conditions in The Gambia (in part brought about by the implementation of the Economic Reform Programme) and the grave lack of socio-infrastructural development throughout the country. The reputation of The Gambia as a beacon of peace, stability and the upholding of human rights was not enough to counter-balance the public dissatisfaction with the PPP regime: in other words, the government had, in the eyes of many Gambians, lost its legitimacy to rule.

Hayward argued that military coups are much less likely to happen in situations where the people believe that the political system is operated properly, and where there is public recognition of the propriety of government. Saine shares his view and posits that when widespread support is entrenched and mustered by any civilian government, then the possibility of a military coup is greatly diminished. Hyden’s analysis of the governmental shortcomings which may be identified as major examples of ‘bad politics’ in Africa include the personalised nature of rule, the frequent violations of human rights and the lack of delegation by central authorities. Lewis also summarises those elements of good governance as strong state authority, public confidence in political institutions and solidarity within civic society.

The PPP government evinced weaknesses in all these areas (including some instances of violations of human rights) and the military coup took place without a massive and hostile public protest. The internal-military complaints were the less publicly vaunted reasons given by the coup leaders for their take-over of power in 1994. Non or late payment of salaries, the promotion of Nigerian officers over Gambians and the dissatisfaction of junior officers with the general state of affairs in the Gambia National Army were all factors which led the coup leaders to take action. Consideration also needs to be given to how far the situation in the West African sub-region impacted the coup leaders’ decisions to go ahead: Liberia and Sierra Leone were embroiled in national bloodbaths and refugees were already spilling into The Gambia. Gambian soldiers had also served in the ECOMOG force in Liberia and had had a chance to work alongside African military colleagues. Relations between The Gambia and Senegal were poor. Lt. Jammeh acknowledged Jerry Rawlings in Ghana as his personal hero and mentor. All these factors undoubtedly played a part in determining the decision to go ahead with the coup. Even without the external reasons for the coup to take place, there were signs that a coup was not an impossibility. It was a combination of the external and internal reasons which brought about the military’s seizure of power in 1994.


Dr Ebrima Ceesay is a Senior Research Fellow, International Development Department, University of Birmingham, UK, with a broad and diverse professional background in social research, policy analysis and education, and issues that relate to equality, diversity employment, skills, and gender. A former BBC correspondent and an ex-editor of the Daily Observer newspaper in the Gambia, Dr Ceesay is a political scientist with more than 17 years of experience and has mainly specialised in the fields of contemporary African politics, democracy and migration studies. He is particularly interested in the political history of the Gambia, electoral reforms, popular participation and political institutions, deviant democracies, people’s perspectives on democratisation, and trends towards authoritarianism in West Africa.

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