The Gambian Question

On 19th January 2017, the next President of Gambia is to be sworn in.

It is currently unclear who that will be.

In the latest instalment of African electoral perplexity, ruling President Yahya Jammeh despite unexpectedly conceding defeat to challenger Adama Barrow in the December 2016 election, reversed that decision 10 days later claiming the elections were rigged.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) stated that President Jammeh must respect the result of the elections and step down, nominating President Buhari to negotiate and Senegal to lead a military force if needed to remove Jammeh.

As the day of Jammeh’s mandate arrives at least 6 ministers have resigned and 3 fled along with the Election Chief, Mr Barrow and thousands of other Gambians, a 90 day state of emergency has been declared and the Nigerian Navy has deployed NNS Unity to stand by off the Gambian coast as thousands of foreign tourists are evacuated.

It is thus pertinent to review this situation, its potential effects on West Africa, its antecedents and history, possible and likely courses of action and possible outcomes.

Whilst Gambia is currently in crisis its fate is intertwined with 3 others countries Gambia, Senegal and Guinea Bissau.

The physical and human terrain and general situation of these countries demonstrates how the people and history interconnect.

Physical Terrain

Gambia: is 11,295km2, the smallest country on continental Africa. It is essentially a flood plain, a strip of land roughly 16km on both sides of the Gambia River, surrounded by Senegal with Fatick, Kaolack and Kaffrine Regions to the north, Tambacounda Region to the north and east and Kolda, Sedhiou and Ziguinchor Regions (also known as the Casamance) to the south, with 80km of Atlantic Ocean to the west. At its widest point, it is almost 50km wide, characterised by mangroves by the coast transitioning to savanna upriver with low rolling hills. Administratively Gambia consists of 8 Local Government Areas

Senegal: has its northern border with Mauritania demarcated by the Senegal River, Mali to the east, Guinea-Conakry to the south east and Guinea Bissau’s Bafata, Cacheu, Gabu and Oio Regions to the southwest bordering the Casamance. The Atlantic Ocean forms the western border, whilst The Gambia is an enclave within. Senegal is divided into 14 Regions the ground is mostly sandy Sahel plains rising to low foothills in the southeast

Guinea Bissau: is a small flat country, mostly covered by mangrove swamps along the coast, transitioning to rain forest and then savanna scrubland, inland. Its northern border is with Senegal’s Casamance Province, with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Guinea- Conakry to the east and south. Administratively it is divided into 8 Regions and subdivided into sectors, one of which (Bissau) is autonomous.

Human Terrain

Tribes Senegal Gambia Guinea Bissau
Mandinka 3% 42% 13%
Fulani 24% 18% 20%
Serer 15% 2.5%
Jola/ Diola 4% 10%
Wolof 43% 16%
Soninke, Bassari 9%
Akus 0.8%
Serahuli 9%
Balanta 30%
Papel 7%
Manjack 1.7%
Malinke 14%
Mesticos ?
Bijago ?



Senegal: is a Francophone country, Muslim majority country. The indigenous lingua franca is Wolof. Portuguese Creole is spoken in the Casamance. European trading posts led to French colonisation in the 19th century. In 1959 the Mali Federation gained independence from France, splitting in 1960 into Senegal and Mali. Senegal was ruled from independence by Leopold Senghor (a Catholic Serer) until 1981 when he handed over to Abdou Diaf (a Muslim Serer from Louga Region). In 1982 Senegal and Gambia formed the Senegambia Confederation, which was dissolved in 1989. Diaf ruled from 1981 until 2000, when Abdoulaye Wade (a Wolof from Louga Region) won the 1999 elections, serving from 2000 to 2012, when he tried to run for another term but was defeated by former Prime Minister Macky Sall (a Fulani with a Serer mother from Fatick Region).

SenegalThe 3 southern Regions of Senegal, bordering Guinea Bissau are known as the Casamance Region, Portuguese until 1888, it has strong Christian, Lusophone influences and is dominated by the Jola people who are a significant minority in Senegal, Gambia and Guinea Bissau but the majority in Casamance. Tribal, cultural and administrative differences caused a pro-independence group the Movement of the Democratic Forces of the Casamance (MFDC) to begin peaceful agitations for independence in 1982 which met with repression. It formed an armed wing in 1985 (allegedly with Guinea Bissau support) and began attacking military installations in 1990. Fighting continued sporadically with several violated truces until a ceasefire in 1997 led to an agreement in 2001 between President Wade and MFDC leader Father Augustin Senghor. Internal disagreements with the deal led to splits in MFDC, fighting simmered on with the land mine being the weapon of choice, intensifying in 2006. Fr Senghor died in 2007, leadership passing to Salif Sadio. A shipment of weapons from Iran allegedly for the MFDC were seized in 2010 in Nigeria. A large scale attempt to capture Bignona, Ziguinchor Region supported by heavy weapons in 2011, marked the peak of the conflict. Low level fighting and landmine attacks continued until a ceasefire was agreed with President Sall and Salif Sadio of the MFDC in May 2014, arbitrated by the Vatican.

Gambia: is an Anglophone, Muslim majority country with significant Christian minorities. The Portuguese set up trading posts in the 15th century, contested by French and British colonialists until the latter two agreed the boundaries of modern day Gambia in 1889 with the British taking it over as a protectorate in 1894.

Gambia’s economy consists of agriculture, transhipment of agricultural produce from Senegal and tourism.

GambiaGambia became independent in 1965. Elections were held every 5 years and won by the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) led by Dauda Jawara (a Mandinka from Kuntaur LGA) who transitioned seamlessly to President from Prime Minister when Gambia became a Republic in 1970. In 1981 a leftist attempted coup against Jawara was suppressed with Senegalese assistance leading to the deaths of up to 500 people. Senegalese security concerns about Casamance separatists and Gambian concerns for regime security led to the formation of the Senegambian Federation in order to unify the countries’ economies, currencies and policies. As the security situation improved, the necessity for the confederation evaporated and calls for closer integration on non-security issues led to its collapse in 1989.

In 1994 soldiers led by Lt Yahya Jammeh (a Jola from Brikama LGA near the southern Senegalese border) protesting about salaries and conditions inadvertently overthrew Jawara’s government as he mistook their protest for a coup and fled to Senegal. Jammeh held elections in 1996 under the banner of the APRC, which he unsurprisingly won.

Unbanning political parties, Jammeh won another 5 year term in 2001, opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary elections in 2002, with Jammehs’ party winning all seats. The same pattern was repeated in 2006 and 2007 and 2011 and 2012.

Increasing allegations of human rights abuses resulted in Jammeh withdrawing Gambia from the Commonwealth in 2013.

In December 2014 Gambian-American expats with the help of a few former and current Gambian soldiers attempted to overthrow Jammeh whilst he was out of the country. The coup failed and many soldiers and civilian arrested, with Jammeh accusing Senegal of complicity, leading to a trade row and frosty relations. In December 2015, Jammeh declared Gambia an Islamic Republic and in October 2016, Jammeh began the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC)- ironically headed by former Gambian Justice Minister. The 2016 elections were characterised by normal repressive measures, however following Jammehs’ surprise concession, opposition candidates made several unguarded comments about arresting Jammeh and investigating past allegations of disappearances, human rights violations and associations with criminals.

Guinea Bissau: is a Lusophone, Muslim majority country with a population of roughly 1.7m people. Portuguese traders set up slave trading posts in the 15th century formally colonising Guinea Bissau in 1879, although they mostly stayed in Bissau and Cacheu on the coast, trading with indigenous chiefs in the interior.

Guinea BissauPortugal made Guinea Bissau a full province of Portugal in 1951, in 1956 agitations for African rights became a liberation struggle by the African Party for Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) led by Amilcar Cabral a Cape Verdean, against Portugal’s Estado Novo Regime, supported by the Soviet bloc. Well led and organised this group unlike insurgencies in other Lusophone countries was militarily and politically successful. The capable Cabral was murdered by Guinean PAIGC rivals in 1973 in a botched leadership tussle (encouraged by PIDE the Portuguese secret police) who feared the dominance of Cape Verdeans, however with PAIGC in control of most of the country, independence was declared on 24th September 1973. This was recognised by Portugal on 25 April 1974 after the Carnation Revolution overthrew the dictatorship in Lisbon.

PAIGC now led by Luis Cabral (Amilcars’ brother) proceeded to waste their remarkable victory by murdering up to 7,000 black Guineans who had fought for the Portuguese and ruining the economy with Marxist policies. The same tension between Guineans and Cape Verdeans as well as repressive rule led to Cabrals overthrow in 1980 by PAIGC military veteran and Prime Minister Gen Joao Bernardo Vieira (a Papel from Bissau) who subsequently won the country’s first multi-party elections in 1994 as the PAIGC candidate. In 1998 Senegalese Casamance rebels clashed with the Guinea Bissau Army along the northern border. Arms allegedly from Guinea Bissau armouries were discovered in the area, leading the Minister of Defence to accuse the Army Commander, Gen Ansumane Mane, (a Gambian born Mandinka) of dereliction of duty. He responded by accusing President Vieira of permitting the Minister of Defence and several officers to smuggle weapons to the Casamance rebels and was promptly sacked.

Mane then led an army mutiny leading to a brief civil war with Senegal and Guinea-Conakry supporting the Vieira government against Mane’s rebels. An ECOWAS intervention force, arrived to separate the forces as majority of government forces defected to the rebels who controlled most of the country. Repeated outbreaks of fighting led eventually to President Vieira’s exile to Portugal in 1999.

Kumba Yala of the Party for Social Renewal (PRS) (a Christian Balanta from the Cacheu Region who converted to Islam in 2008) won the subsequent election in 2000. Gen Mane again attempted a coup after disagreeing with Yala’s promotions of military officers and was killed in November 2000, reportedly ‘trying to escape after surrendering’.

Yala was deposed in a military coup in 2003, after repeated clashes with Ministers and coalition partners as well as alleged coup plots. Parliamentary elections in March 2004 were followed military unrest in October and the death of the Army Commander.

Presidential Elections were held in June 2005, contested by former President Yala and former President Vieira with the latter winning.

In March 2006, the Guinea Bissau Army engaged Casamance rebels after a landmine killed 13 women in the vicinity of Sao Domingos, Cacheu Region displacing 20,0000 people.

Roughly around this time Guinea Bissau became a major transhipment point for narcotics from Latin America to Europe. In 2008 President Vieira’s residence was unsuccessfully attacked by renegade soldiers. Another attack in March 2009 was more successful assassinating President Vieira the day after the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Batista Tagme Na Wai was killed in an explosion.

The Speaker of the National Assembly Raimundo Pereira acted as Interim President until new elections in June 2009, which saw Malam Bacai Sanha from Dar Salam in Quinara Region (who lost the 2005 PAIGC primary to Vieira) defeat Kumba Iala.

In March 2011, Angola deployed a military training team known as MISSANG-GB to train 400 soldiers and policemen under the auspices of the CPLP (a Portuguese Commonwealth), they withdrew after the 2012 coup, after the plotters called for the removal of all foreign troops, however they were replaced by an ECOWAS force

Sanha died in January 2012 (having survived 2 alleged coup attempts), with Pereira stepping in again as interim until overthrown in April 2012 by the military with former Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Mamadu Ture Kuruma taking over and Manuel Serifo Nhamadjo. Former Navy Commander Americo Bubi Na Tchuto, was arrested by US law enforcement in 2013after persistent accusations of involvement in narco trafficking. A new Presidential election in May 2014 was won by Jose Mario Vaz (Cacheu Region) defeated Nuno Gomes Nabiam a Balanta, who sacked the Army Chief Antonio Indjai in September 2014 due to allegations of narco trafficking and arms sales to Colombian rebels.

Factors to consider:

Identity Politics: the peoples of these countries share common tribes and languages but are separated by inherited foreign languages, cultures and systems across their artificial borders. Senegal’s traditionally moderate Sufi Muslim culture has allowed relative ethnic harmony, such that first President was a Christian Serer (with a Muslim Fulani mother), followed by a Serer, a Wolof and then a Fulani. This religious and tribal harmony does not however apply to the Casamance, separated by Gambia and language. Whilst Senegal has finally managed to defuse the crisis, it is vulnerable to external interference. Jammeh’s Jola/ Diola roots have allowed him to intervene in the crisis in the role of mediator as well as benefactor of Jolas by stacking the security forces including the heads of the security and intelligence with his tribesmen, including some allegedly from Casamance especially the Presidential Guard. The perceived marginalisation of the majority Mandinka was exacerbated during the election campaign in which Jammeh attacked the Mandinka, with extreme rhetoric at a rally in Tallinding in June 2016, threatening to kill them and stating no Mandinka would ever be President, earning national and international rebuke as well as guaranteeing Mandinka’s would vote against him.

In Guinea Bissau, ethnic differences are part of their founding story with resentment of the Cape Verdean PAIGC elite by the Black African (majority Balanta) rank and file leading to Amilcar Cabral’s murder, aggravated by the murder of thousands of black African ex Portuguese soldiers. Cape Verdes separation in 1980 after Vieira’s coup, did not end ethnic woes, with the Balanta’s dominating the military and politics and supporting factions of Casamance separatists with weapons and sanctuary.

Military: the military forces of the 3 states all differ widely. Senegalese forces are considered some of the best trained in sub Saharan Africa benefitting from close links to France and the US.

The Army is the premier force consisting of 3 armoured battalions, 6 infantry battalions and a recce battalion, nominally equipped with over 150 armoured vehicles, at least 34 artillery pieces and 16 mortars and 33 AAA guns.

The Navy consists of up to 24 patrol boats and the air force of 2 Mi 24 Attack helicopter, 9 Support helicopters and 3 transport and 1 VIP planes and 2 King Air ISR aircraft.

Senegalese military experience includes peace keeping operations (PKO) in Zaire in 1978, interventions in Gambia in 1981, a battalion sent to Op Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia in 1991, a battle group to Liberia in 1992 as part of ECOMOG, a battalion to Rwanda in 1994, intervention in the Guinea Bissau civil war in 1998, contribution to UN PKOs in Centrafrique in 1997 and in DR Congo and most recently 2,100 troops were sent to Saudi Arabia in 2015 to ‘protect the Holy sites of Mecca’ as part of the Saudi coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, (the Saudis’ are investing heavily in a Senegalese development program known as PSE 2035).

The Gambian Army consists of 2 infantry battalions, an engineer squadron and a Presidential Guard. The Air Force consists of a solitary Su-25 Frogfoot, 1 x Il 62 and 2 x AT 80s aircraft, their serviceability is unclear. Gambia has contributed Company sized elements to UN and African PKO’s. Training support comes from Turkey, Pakistan

Guinea Bissau’s military consists of the legacy forces from the Liberation War. The Army has approximately 4,000 personnel organised as an armoured squadron, a recce company, 4 infantry battalions, 1 artillery battalion and an Engineer company. Armour and artillery are obsolete consisting of 16 x  PT 76, 10 x T 34s and 26 x D30 and D 44.  More potent are the 63 APCs, the 26 artillery pieces are also obsolete, supplemented by 8 x 82mm and 8 x 120mm mortars. 32 x AAA guns provide air defence and support weapons. None of the  Air forces MiGs or helicopters are operational, it is not known how many of the Navy’s 4 boats are operational. Support for training has come from Angola and the EU, both of which pulled out after clashing with the Guinea Bissauan hierarchy.

Senegal exerts effective civilian control of the military and is easily the best force in the sub region, of Gambian forces only the Presidential Guard (allegedly trained by Israelis and South Africans) is trained and well equipped, however they amount to a battalion at most and have no combat experience. The Guinea  Bissauan military is not an effective fighting force, with a bloated and corrupt officer corps (over 60%) allegedly involved in narco trafficking and supporting Casamance rebels.

Geopolitics: whilst Gambia has limited geopolitical importance, Senegal is an important French/ Us ally, providing a logistics hub for French forces in Mali and US SOF and CIA bases assets. Senegal’s main threats are the Casamance conflict, the risk of Daesh attacks on hotels or resorts, despite the moderate Islamic traditions Senegalese jihadis have fought with Sahelian groups and Boko Haram. All of these make Senegalese security key to French/ US interests. However Senegal is vulnerable to Gambia’s ability to reactivate the Casamance crisis (deliberately or through the return of armed, trained Jola soldiers from the Gambian armed forces). An additional threat is further destabilisation in Guinea Bissau through further war or violence. Guinea Bissau has limited geopolitical importance except to Angola as one the only two Lusophone countries in West Africa. Investments in ports, mines and petroleum allow Angola to project power west to the America’s improving trade links with its largest oil customer the USA and Lusophone powerhouse, Brazil. Thus conflict in Gambia, leading to violence in Casamance spilling over to Guinea Bissau could provoke an Angola reaction.

Narco trafficking: Gambia, Senegal and Guinea Bissau at the extreme western tip of Africa are the closest point on the continent to South America, making it an ideal location for the transhipment of narcotics to Europe. Guinea Bissau has become a narco state, with leaders of the country and military working in concert with the Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers. This trade reportedly began in 2005 with the traffickers allegedly sponsoring President Vieira’s election campaign and was rapidly embraced by the military and political hierarchy. The murder of Gen Waje in 2009 came after he allegedly discovered 200kg of cocaine in a military hanger. President Vieira’s death the next day involved him being hacked and beaten to death. It is unclear if this was on the orders of the drug lords or revenge from the Balanta dominated military. Foreign reserves between 2003 and 2008 rose from $33m to $174m with no corresponding FDI or trade to account for the quintupling. Whilst legitimate business has atrophied there has been a trickle down effect with increased aircraft and boat registrations and Guinea Bissauans finding employment (and imprisonment) as drug mules. In 2013 an international police operation detained 5 Guinea Bissauans (including former Navy Commander Na Tchuto and Gen Indjai) attempting to sell weapons to FARC in Colombia in exchange for drugs and cash. An increase in drug seizure in Gambia indicates that the traffickers have a presence in the country.

Possible Courses of Action:

Legal: Jammeh petitioned the Gambian Supreme Court led by Nigerian Judge Justice Fagbenle to review the election. A case heard by the court could possibly find against Jammeh and he would step down but this is unlikely as Justice Fagbenle has been accused of being pro Jammeh leading his to recuse himself. Irrespective the Gambian Supreme Court is been unable to hear the case as there are no Gambian judges and the Nigerian Supreme Court has refused to allow any judges be seconded from Nigeria until May 2017. Thus the case is frozen.

Diplomatic: consistent pressure from regional and international bodies has not had an effect and is unlikely to, however it does increase the pressure and sense of isolation, diplomatic channels will allow Jammeh a way out of the crisis.

Economic: sanctions would likely be implemented if Jammeh refuses to hand over power. Whilst the effect will fall mostly on the Gambian people, targeted sanctions and travel bans against individuals will fix the elite in place, especially if ECOWAS does the same.

Military: the military option appears to be the last resort, however the Senegalese as the point nation for any military intervention vastly overmatch the Gambians and control all and points of entry. Media reports state that 19 Bn, 4 Bde, 2 Div, Nigeria Army based in Okitipupa is being readied. The presence of a warship and threat of a Nigerian battle group with possible air support could  possibly dissuade the Gambians from putting up even a token resistance.

Likely Course of Action: The reasons for Jammeh’s acceptance and then rejection of the results is unclear, however he is an extremely superstitious man.

What can be considered is that the strident calls for investigations into human rights abuses, combined with the recent jailing of Hissene Habre in neighbouring Senegal by an AU court in May 2016 could have prompted Jammeh to consider the possible consequences of stepping down without some sort of indemnity from prosecution.

Jammeh will also be acutely aware that his forces cannot resist any intervention forces for more than a few hours at best and any military confrontation will end in the way Laurent Gbagbo’s did in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 with an embarrassing surrender or even death.

However he has most likely calculated that intervention forces are not yet ready and could be further delayed if ECOWAS sought a UN Security Council resolution before intervening.  Even if they did not, it is likely that ECOWAS run through all its tool of diplomatic pressure before ordering an intervention.

It is likely that at this point, through an intermediary Jammeh will seek asylum in a third country, although Mr Barrow has stated Jammeh would not be prosecuted and allowed to live in Gambia, it is unlikely he would risk it.

Media state that Morocco (Jammehs wife is Morrocan) has offered asylum, as Morrocco is returning to the AU at the summit in Addis Ababa after an absence of 33 years, successfully defusing the crisis would be a diplomatic coup.

It is unlikely and improbable that Jammeh will risk all in military confrontation, he is likely to drag the process out beyond the inauguration to demonstrate he was not driven from office and accept an asylum offer ‘in the interests of peace’.

Within this scenario Jammeh of course has the option of instigating violence in Casamance as either a counter attack or warning to Senegal although this would be a risky venture as that would present Senegal with a genuine casus belli and would not benefit the separatists.

If Jammeh is removed by force this will create a significant element of instability in the region. The destruction of the Gambian forces either through violence or desertion would leave a security vacuum, which could be exploited by Casamance separatists, criminals or narco traffickers. Rebuilding those forces, repairing war damage would be an unbudgeted cost as will be the reputational damage to Gambia’s tourism industry. Destabilisation could spill over into Guinea Bissau, creating additional pressure on resources

If Jammeh steps down peacefully and goes into exile, (with or without his amnesty) he could either go into a quiet retirement or act as a malign influence, remotely sponsoring opposition to the new government or attacks in Casamance.


The Gambian crisis is entering into its decisive phase, with each actor upping the ante with naval deployments and states of emergency in a display of brinkmanship. How fa either side will go remains to be seen.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Defence, Geopolitics, Peacekeeping, Stabilisation, West Africa Defence, West Africa Strategy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Gambian Question

  1. Pingback: The Gambian Question | Brittius

  2. datvires says:

    As ever a scholarly but easy to read analysis that every diplomat in neighbouring states should read with care. I know nothing of The Gambia but feel now I can hold a fair discussion on the region. Thank you

  3. Cognitio says:

    An interesting and thorough analysis. I have contacts in the country and the feeling is that this will be resolved fairly quickly. The Gambian military is unlikely to stand and face almost certain destruction. The Presidential Guard is slightly different and, as a predominantly Jola tribal unit, they are probably the only troops that will remain loyal. But the odds are against it. It numbers about 200 and is armed with small arms only (up to 12.7mm machine guns). So it is unlikely to be capable of standing for long. However, it cannot be ruled out that someone close to Jammeh might decide that the right thing to do, for Gambia and the wider region, is to kill the soon-to-be former president.

    I think the scenario you offered of a refusal to stand down followed fairly quickly by an acceptance of an offer of asylum might be realistic. I am informed that Jammeh has been offered asylum in Nigeria (as was Charles Taylor of Liberia).

    There is a significant factor to consider and that is Jammeh’s Jola tribal links. The Casamance province remains volatile and were he to be allowed to survive this he might urge his fellow tribesmen to mount an insurgency into Gambia. There are reportedly significant links between Boko Haram and Islamist rebels in Casamance ( Jammeh’s ties to his Saudi sponsors remain strong and the silence from the Kingdom is noted. It is possible that the broader Saudi agenda would not be opposed to an Islamist insurgency that has the declared aim of protection the Islamic Republic of Gambia from a reversal of Jammeh’s December 2015 declaration of the Islamic Republic.

    Another factor that complicates the outcome is the alleged $1 billion of funds held by the President in offshore accounts. Anecdotal information from inside Gambia suggests one of the reasons Jammeh is digging his heals in is a stated threat to seize and repatriate money looted from Gambia’s national funds. He also has awarded himself ownership of huge swathes of prime land including a massive farm and coastal land that is prime development land for the hospitality sector.

    • peccavi says:

      Thanks, I left out the Saudi element as I think its not clear how they would respond. Also Senegal as contributors to their operations and a more important country would most likely have the final say

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