School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

The Responsibility to Protect and Sub-Regional Organisations: The Case of The Gambia

By John Bosco Nizeimana

John Bosco Nizeimana is currently a visiting researcher at Georgetown University-School of Foreign Services in the Department of African Studies (Washington DC, US). Bosco holds a Master of Science degree in International Relations from the University of Zimbabwe. He previously worked as full-time Associate Lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, in the Deptartment of Political and Administrative Studies.  He is a PhD student in South Africa, at Rhodes University, researching the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect norm in Sudan and Libya.


The outcome of the December 2016 Gambian presidential elections took the world by surprise. After 22 years in power, Yahya Jammeh was voted out of office. In July 2017, Gambians celebrated Jammeh’s political announcement in which he accepted the election results, conceded defeat, and congratulated the new President, Adam Barrow, promising a smooth transition of power. Jammeh’s decision was applauded worldwide and was seen as the most important step towards democracy in Africa, and in The Gambia in particular, since the country has achieved no peaceful transition of power through national elections since its independence.

Two of the major electoral promises made by Barrow were to reverse The Gambia’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and to reinstate the country’s membership of the Commonwealth. Barrow’s promises angered Jammeh who soon after he accepted defeat went against his initial declaration and declared that, ultimately, he was not going to accept the election results. He vowed to fight against what he called “external interference in the politics of The Gambia” and threatened bloodshed if force was used to eject him from office. His declaration was followed by the announcement of a 90-day countrywide state of emergency.

Across The Gambia, there were fears of political unrest, civil war, and massive human rights violations. The UN Security Council, the African Union, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) expressed their concern and called for Jammeh to step down. Despite this, Jammeh’s refused to step down, creating a situation that brought The Gambia at the centre stage of global attention.

The situation in The Gambia was of concern to the international community, particularly ECOWAS and the UN.  In his June 10th, 2016, statement, the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, noted that President Jammeh referred to the Mandinka, an African ethnic group with a strong presence in the Gambia, as “enemies, foreigners, and threatened to kill them one day and place them where even a fly cannot see them”. Dieng condemned Jammeh’s “public stigmatisation, dehumanisation and threats against the Mandinka” and warned about the danger of such statements that can contribute to dividing populations, feed suspicion and serve to instigate violence against communities based solely on their identity.

With a potential humanitarian crisis mounting, ECOWAS intervened in December 2016 through diplomatic negotiations aiming to convince Jammeh to respect his earlier promises and step down. The heads of state of the ECOWAS mission, led by the presidents of Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and former Ghanaian president, John Dramani Mahama, met Jammeh in The Gambia and encouraged him to step down. However, Jammeh resisted diplomatic pressures and vowed to fight to remain in power. Faced with a potential humanitarian crisis, ECOWAS member states, led by Senegal, threatened to use military force in order to force Jammeh out of power.

Eventually, the key actor which made it difficult for Jammeh to remain in power was not ECOWAS, but The Gambia’s national army, which refused to side with him. The army did not want to engage in any military confrontation with the ECOWAS forces. Thus, The Gambia’s army stood neutral. As ECOWAS forces advanced, Jammeh agreed to relinquish power so as to pave the way for the new government to take over. He eventually left the country, going into exile in Equatorial Guinea in what was largely seen as a negotiated deal between him and ECOWAS.


The ECOWAS response to the Gambian crisis was driven by its conflict response strategies, including military intervention and the use of coercive diplomacy. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an international norm which sets forth that states have the primary responsibility to protect their civilian populations from massive human rights violations such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The principle makes it clear that when a state fails to protect its population, the mandate to protect those civilians falls into the hands of the international community.

Indeed, paragraph 46 of the ECOWAS framework enables military intervention in circumstances that threaten to trigger humanitarian catastrophes, serious threats to regional peace and security, or in scenarios stirred by attempts to overthrow a democratically elected government of a state party. The role played by ECOWAS in incorporating the ideas of the R2P norm into its peace and security framework shows the contributory role of sub-regional organisations to the implementation of R2P-related measures to protect civilians.

Furthermore, article 52 of the UN Charter asserts that local actors such as regional organisations may take necessary actions, including enforcement actions (as long as they have approval from the UNSC), to maintain international peace and security.  This is crucial since under the ideal scenario, when the R2P norm is effectively applied, local actors tend to accede to R2P provisions. As Bellamy notes in his 2008 article on The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Military Intervention, the application of the R2P principles is a shared practice between intervening actors and local agents living in the territory or region where the respective local authority has manifestly failed to protect civilians.

In addition to the instrumental role played by ECOWAS in resolving the 2017 Gambian constitutional crisis, internal security institutions such as the national army of the Gambia were key to the successful execution of ECOWAS strategy. In his statement, The Gambia’s Army Chief of staff Ousman Badjie noted that:

we are not going to involve ourselves militarily. This is a political dispute, I am not going to involve my soldiers in a stupid fight. I love my men. If they (Senegalese) come in, we are here like this”.

With the army refusing to back him, Jammeh’s plan to remain in power became impossible. The ECOWAS military intervened in the Gambia but faced no military resistance from the Gambian National Armed forces.

The ECOWAS intervention in The Gambia demonstrates its commitment to protect democracy and civilian populations from actual or potential humanitarian crises in its member states. As shown in the case of The Gambia, regional and sub-regional organisations are important promoters of the R2P principle. Most notably, the successful intervention of ECOWAS was largely facilitated by the behaviour of The Gambian armed forces who remained independent despite pressure from Yahya Jammeh to go against ECOWAS troops.

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