Democracy From Above: ECOWAS Helps Maintain Democracy in the Gambia

In a world where we often focus on what goes wrong, there are times when it is good to look at what goes right. Or at least, somewhat right. In a democracy, leaders are expected to give up power and leave office when they lose an election. In established democracies, they do this. In nations that have new or weak institutions, a president leaving office is not guaranteed, even when they lose an election.

One solution for states with more fragile governance is to seek outside support for democratic institutions. In the case of the Gambia, this solution worked as planned, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) intervening to ensure the transition of power to the elected president Adama Barrow.

In Western media, Africa is often presented as a basket case of weak institutions, plagued by instability. At times, African nations have lived down to this stereotype. Little known to most Westerners, Africa has developed some of the most innovative global governance institutions in the world.

ECOWAS is one of the most interesting examples of this institutional innovation. Begun as a simple regional economic organization, the leaders of ECOWAS countries soon realized that, as poor developing nation-states, simply signing a treaty was not going to bring instant rewards. Lacking the established and stable institutions found in the industrial North, and still suffering the legacies of colonialism, the regional grouping would need to take a different path.

ECOWAS developed a security dimension to its organization that aimed to promote stability among its members by providing peacekeeping forces and other mechanisms for stabilizing the local security situation. In response to civil war and instability among its members, the organization built local peace-keeping and intervention forces that proved important in settling civil wars in several of its members.

In recent years, ECOWAS has institutionalized a commitment to democracy that is rarely paralleled in other organizations. With memories of dictatorships still fresh in several of its members, ECOWAS made a firm commitment to support democracy. This commitment was sorely tested following the 2016 election in The Gambia.

The Gambia is not a model of democracy. The incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh rose to power in a coup de etat in 1994, ousting the military government of Dawda Jawara that had ruled since independence in 1965. In spite of the violent origin of the Jammeh government, four elections had been held in which President Jammeh was returned to power. None of these elections was particularly free or fair, but they did preserve the basic form of democracy.

In 2016, things were expected to be the same. Only the people of The Gambia had other ideas. Despite an unfair process, the people voted for an inexperienced former property developer named Adama Barrow to replace Mr. Jammeh as president.

At first things looked positive: Mr. Jammeh conceded defeat (to the great surprise of most observers) and agreed to step aside. Soon after, however, he changed his mind and announced that the election results were null and void and that another election would be held.

At this point, most of the world said the usual unhappy things and wagged its collective finger. But ECOWAS faced a critical choice, and the organization chose to act.

Peace talks were attempted in which ECOWAS leaders sought to convince Mr. Jammeh to leave peacefully. These talks failed. President Barrow was sworn into office while in exile and ECOWAS troops from several neighboring states entered the country on January 19, 2017. Following the intervention, Mr. Jammeh agreed to leave The Gambia and go into exile.

An African regional organization had applied its international rules protecting democracy. It had enforced its rules with its own military forces backing up its diplomatic efforts. And after very little actual fighting, democracy was preserved in The Gambia.

Democracy is generally thought of as a bottom up process. Most of our political theory starts with things like a social contract in which the people contracts with a government that they select to represent their interests. But when institutions are weak and democracy is new, it helps to have outside help. ECOWAS has shown that democracy can be supported from above: regional organizations can support and maintain democratic institutions when they fail in a member state.

In a world of bad news and instability, it is nice to see that very poor countries, facing many obstacles, have shown the will and capacity to preserve democratic institutions in the face of threats from within. That is good news.



  1. To preserve democracy in The Gambia, ECOWAS had to violate Gambian sovereignty and intervene. The Gambia agreed to this condition as part of its membership of ECOWAS. Does the ceding of that degree of sovereignty mean that ECOWAS members are no longer nation-states as we typically define them?
  2. The use of a regional organization to promote economic and military security, as well as to police the internal politics of its members is unusual. What advantages does such a system offer that would lead its members to accept such strong international constraints?
  3. Post-colonial African nations have long strived to find “African solutions for African problems.” Does the successful intervention to preserve democracy in The Gambia suggest that these nations are nearing the point where that dream has become a reality?