Skip to main content

A ferry carrying people who fled Gambia arrives in the country’s capital, Banjul, a day after Yahya Jemmeh left the country, on Sunday.Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

One of Africa's longest-ruling dictators has finally been forced into exile. But his choice of refuge, in an oil-rich autocracy to the south, is a reminder that many other authoritarian regimes will be more difficult to dislodge.

Gambia's ex-dictator, Yahya Jammeh, climbed into a private jet and flew to Equatorial Guinea on Saturday night, ending his 22 years of brutal domination over his country. He knew that a West African intervention force was poised to overthrow him if he lingered.

Before departing, he sought to secure his fortune. An adviser to the new President, Adama Barrow, said on Sunday that Mr. Jammeh had emptied the state coffers, shipped out his luxury vehicles and looted about $11-million (U.S.) in state money.

Read more: Gambia's defeated leader leaves country, ends standoff

Read more: Longtime Gambian leader agrees to give up power

But the former dictator reportedly failed in his demand for immunity from prosecution. His forced departure was a humiliating defeat for the man who once boasted that he would rule for "a billion years."

The bloodless transition in Gambia was a victory for the democratic movement in West Africa. African institutions are increasingly intolerant of coups, and Mr. Jammeh's attempt to cling to power after losing last month's election was essentially an attempted coup.

"The rule of law has prevailed in Gambia," said a statement by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday. "I congratulate African leadership for this success in restoring democracy."

African Union Commission head Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said she felt "infinite gratitude" to West African leaders, the UN and Gambian citizens for "protecting democracy." It was the first democratic transition of power in Gambia since its independence in 1965, she noted.

But while democracy has become entrenched in most West African nations in the past two decades, it remains fragile or absent in much of the continent. Autocratic rulers from Angola to Zimbabwe have little to fear from the Gambia lesson. Their wealth and military power are likely to protect them from the kinds of pressure tactics that were effective against Gambia's strongman. Gambia, after all, is a tiny country with a small army and a population of just two million people.

Some authoritarian regimes, including those of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have simply ignored the international demands for term limits and fair elections. Others, such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, have been able to exploit their status as strategic allies of the West. For these regimes, the Gambia precedent is irrelevant.

When he flew out of Gambia on Saturday night, Mr. Jammeh landed in a country controlled by Africa's longest-ruling autocrat. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, like Mr. Jammeh, is a former army officer who seized power in a military coup. He has now ruled Equatorial Guinea for more than 37 years.

Equatorial Guinea, the third-biggest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa, enjoys the highest per-capita income in the region, even though the vast majority of its population are below the poverty line. Its wealth is concentrated in a few hands, including those of Mr. Obiang's son, Vice-President Teodorin Obiang, who faces corruption charges in France for allegedly looting $115-million from his own country.

Equatorial Guinea has refused to join the International Criminal Court. As long as Mr. Jammeh remains there, he will be shielded from any risk of international prosecution for the atrocities committed by his regime over the past 22 years.

Mr. Jammeh last year announced that Gambia will withdraw from the international court. His successor, Mr. Barrow, has promised to reverse that decision.

Before leaving Gambia on Saturday, Mr. Jammeh was demanding a deal that would give him amnesty from prosecution and the right to take his assets with him.

A document published on the African Union website on Saturday, described as a "joint declaration" by the AU, the UN and the West African countries, pledged to guarantee the "dignity, respect, security and rights" of Mr. Jammeh and his family. It promised that his assets would not be seized and he would not face any "intimidation, harassment or witch-hunting."

But the Foreign Minister of Senegal, a key member of the West African bloc, said the document was unsigned and unofficial. He denied there was any promise that Mr. Jammeh would have immunity from prosecution.

The new President, Mr. Barrow, has suggested he would prefer to hold a "truth and reconciliation commission" in Gambia, rather than prosecute Mr. Jammeh or his loyalists.

Mr. Barrow was inaugurated last week at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, but he is still awaiting assurances it is safe for him to return home. West African troops were reportedly securing government buildings in Gambia on Sunday to ensure that he won't face any threats when he returns.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct