Thursday, January 26, 2017

Power beyond the Constraints of Federalism: The Case of Gambia’s 2016 Presidential Election

Even though Adama Barrow defeated the longtime president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, in the state’s presidential election in December, 2016, Barrow was rushed to the state of Senegal for security reasons when Jammeh refused to relinquish the power of the presidency. Jammeh had led a successful coup in coming to power in 1994. So it is no surprise that days after accepting the election result, he “changed his mind, declared the election results invalid and vowed to use the power of his military to stay in charge.”[1] This attests to the allure of power and how difficult it is to give up. In the E.U. and U.S., the protocols and institutional procedures are so well established that the nature of power is eclipsed from view as one political party assumes power previously held by another party. The reality of power as it lives in human nature is much more raw in the case of Gambia’s transition of presidents in 2016. I submit that federalism at the empire level was too lax to bracket the true nature of power at the state level.

Gambia's new president, Adama Barrow, 
returning to the state after the previous president agreed to leave office. (Jerome Delay/AP)

“It took repeated personal overtures from West African presidents and finally a regional coalition of troops that crossed into Gambia to persuade [Jammeh], renowned for human rights abuses, to step down.”[2] That he felt compelled to leave Gambia for Equatorial Guinea says as much about the reach of the International Criminal Court as it does about the matter of how Gambia’s rule of law is no match for raw power in human vengeance materializing through political power. In other words, the exaggerated actions, including the need of a regional coalition of troops and Jammeh’s self-imposed exile, point to the reality of power without the channels of well-established, or fortified, institutional rules and even societal customs.

Furthermore, the ad hoc nature of the regional coalition bespeaks the need for a strengthening of the African Union. Unlike the E.U. and U.S., the A.U. is a mere confederation with little or no governmental sovereignty at the federal level. Were the A.U. balanced in terms of state and federal power (and the same could be said of the Articles of Confederation in the U.S. and the EEC before the E.U.), the federal level could have acted as a check against Jammeh’s dogmatic decision to remain in office. On the other side—and Americans in particular need to be reminded of this—the state governments in a federal system should have enough power to act as a check against over-reach at the federal level. The E.U. is much closer to a balanced federalism, with the A.U. on one side and the U.S. on the other (i.e., risks of dissolution and consolidation, respectively).

[1] Jaime Y. Barry and Dionne Searcey, “His Predecessor Gone, Gambia’s New President Finally Comes Home,” The New York Times, January 26, 2017.
[2] Ibid.