Has Ecomig overstayed its Gambian welcome?

APA-Banuul (The Gambia)

Long before the mandate of the Ecowas Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) was extended by West African regional leaders in January 2021, the debate has been on over whether its peacekeepers have overstayed their welcome.

The threat of military intervention by the regional grouping had apparently forced veteran Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh to relinquish power and flee into exile after his controversial U-turn, challenging the outcome of the December 2016 presidential election plunged his country into a political crisis.

West African countries notably Senegal and Nigeria had spearheaded a push for military intervention to flush Jammeh out when he became dogged in his refusal to cede power to the then largely unknown election victor Adama Barrow, who headed an opposition coalition to the polls.

This later proved unnecessary as Jammeh eventually backed down and a power transition was set in motion but the month-long crisis had left its toll, sharpening divisions along politico-ethnic lines and passing over the chance for what would have been Gambia's first smooth transfer of power.  

As Jammeh jetted off to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017, for an indeterminable number of years in exile, some 4000 Senegalese, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Malian and Togolese troops moved in and their mission morphed from flushing him out to ensuring stability ahead of a democratic transition, protecting and supporting the new authorities and providing dynamism to a proposed security sector reform of the country's police and military structures.

ECOMIG troops were welcomed with open arms.

There were scenes of open revelry with citizens smothering the foreign troops with hugs and kisses after ECOMIG tanks rolled into the capital Banjul and other nearby towns and cities, signaling a definitive end to Jammeh's strongman leadership style.

Citizens already wary of what could be lurking in Gambia's immediate post-crisis situation, felt the peacekeepers had to be around to discourage residual political problems of the past and possible subversives from disrupting the new order.

President Barrow said then as he does now that his government needed time to rejig "the mission, structures, mindsets and culture of security institutions, to make them more responsive, affordable, and accountable based on democratic norms and principles".

Renewable every six months, Ecomig's mission has been renewed severally including the latest in 2021 but for most Gambians the honeymoon is over and like most peacekeepers initially seen as heroes, there is a sense that they are now increasingly being seen as overstaying their welcome and the party mood around them appears to have gone.

A sense of mistrust has seemingly seeped through the cracks of what were once good relations between civilians and the peacekeepers and Gambian streets reflect this atmosphere which is not overly hostile but constitutes a snub all the same.

Some people short of viewing them as an occupying force, think their presence may no longer be necessary given the return to peace and stability five years after Jammeh took the country to the political abyss. 

Several "untoward incidents" involving ECOMIG troops and civilians, including the death of Jammeh supporter Haruna Jatta, during a June 2017 protest in his home village of Kanilai, 118km southeast of Banjul may have helped shape public opinion against them.

There is the vexed question of the role of the Senegalese contingent of the ECOMIG mission which to many Gambians is shrouded in a veil of secrecy only President Adama Barrow can unravel.  

Today the mission has whittled down its troop numbers to just 1000, comprising 750 Senegalese troops, 200 Nigerian soldiers and 50 Ghanaians and will turn into a police mission by the end of 2021.

This is not going down well with some top politicians, among them Mai Ahmed Fatty who wrote off the idea of an Ecowas police mission in The Gambia as a threat to his country's security interests and sovereignty.

Although, a 2019 survey by a local body found that three out of 10 local respondents trust the national army to protect the country and its citizens, there are indications that public opinion of the Gambian military has improved since then with the government's much vaunted security sector reform well underway.  

In the opinion of Mr Fatty, a former Interior minister under President Barrow, transforming Ecomig into a police mission, comprising officers from Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Togo is "unnecessary, ill-advised and unwise". 

However, he expects his compatriots privileged to be steering the Gambian ship of state to share his misgivings about the implications of implementing "such a defective decision" and would by the strength and conviction of their sense of patriotism turn it down. 

Other Gambians believe it is grossly demeaning to personnel of The Gambia Police Force to witness their counterparts from other countries in the region doing their job for them.

Even Momodou Alieu Njie, the son of the country's election chief, Alieu Momar Njie, has weighed in on the issue, making his position unmistakably clear.

"Having a Police Unit formed by ECOMIG will not make us safer but more vulnerable. Let  us train our security forces to make sure that democratic principles are ingrained in them than having our security in the hands of foreign forces. Wake up" he wrote on his Facebook page last month.

Subscribing to Njie's position, Saul Fatty, said if it comes to pass, the move would be the worst under the transition and called on the entire Gambian police force to resign in protest.

But President Barrow and his government face an election year.

Analysts say it is understandable that the Ecowas police unit idea is being floated given that election years are usually the most sensitive in African countries from a security perspective and considering what had happened five years ago, The Gambia may not necessarily be an exception to this general disquieting rule.

Much is at stake in Gambia's election year 2021 and the authorities and their peers in the region wary of the prospect of political conflagration will rightly or wrongly leave nothing to chance, some of them point out. 

Meanwhile, Vabah Gayflor, the head of the ECOMIG Mission and ECOWAS Ambassador to The Gambia, said such judgments about a proposed foreign police unit miss some crucial points.

Speaking to a private radio station, Mrs. Gayflor emphasized that members of the police mission would be in The Gambia in negligible numbers to complement the work of their indigenous counterparts.

She reemphasized that nothing was going to change in the sense that the Gambian police force would remain in full charge of their policing duties as before.

The Gambia's next election cycle begins on December 4, 2021 with presidential poll and analysts say this could provide the most crucial test over how far Ecomig peacekeepers have contributed to deepening trust and confidence in the country's democratic stability.


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