Michelle Gavin is a senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. From 2011 to 2014, she served as the U.S. ambassador to Botswana and to the Southern African Development Community. She started at CFR in February 2018.
In March, international donors pledged $1.7 billion to Gambia, a small West African state perhaps best known for its eccentric and sometimes brutal recently departed leader, Yahya Jammeh. For over two decades, Jammeh was the only leader the people of Gambia knew, and he tolerated little dissent. After failing to rig the 2016 elections sufficiently to be declared the victor, he tried to remain in office despite electoral defeat. He left only after regional states represented by the Economic Community of West African States, backed by the rest of the international community, exerted substantial pressure on him to go in early 2017.
While today Jammeh lives comfortably in Equatorial Guinea, protected by an even longer-serving dictator (Teodoro Obiang has been President since 1979), his country is left to grapple with his legacy: crippling public debt and utterly corroded governing institutions. In the face of these problems, the new government has the added burden of unrealistically high expectations that naturally accompany a long-awaited change at the top.
The winner of the momentous 2016 elections, President Adama Barrow, cohosted the recent donor conference with the European Union. He was seeking support for his government’s comprehensive National Development Program, which is intended to rebuild the economy so that young Gambians have fewer reasons to flee to Europe. It also aims to strengthen the rule of law and reform the security sector to address the repressive legacy of the Jammeh years. The need for multiple sweeping, soup-to-nuts political and economic reforms is a daunting challenge—and one well worth helping Gambians meet.
Gambia is a small state of just over two million people. But it is worth international attention and support because of the potential power of its example. Democratic transitions are notoriously difficult. Such a transition in a multi-ethnic, majority Muslim society is a rare and encouraging development. A successful recovery from a highly personalized and often erratic regime and transformation into one of Africa’s stable democracies can yield valuable lessons and insights for others far beyond Gambia’s borders. Right now, Gambia has political will at the top and a commitment to inclusive processes aimed at giving all Gambians a stake in building a different kind of state. Those raw ingredients are not easy to come by, and with continued international support, they could deliver results that strengthen the hand of democratic forces striving to change repressive regimes elsewhere, proving that there is indeed another way.