By Hayley Elszasz
This past December, the world watched as citizens went to the polls in what would become a historic election in Gambia. Incredibly, the opposition candidate, Adama Barrow, defeated the eccentric and authoritarian incumbent, Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled the tiny country for over two decades. This democratic turnover broke the regional trend of presidents extending their power past their term limits, justifiably attracting outside attention. Notably, the high volume of press surrounding the Gambian election was partially thanks to dedicated advocates who use their platforms to spread awareness about key events in Africa that too often get overlooked.
Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of Vanguard Africa, was one of the international observers closely monitoring the election in Gambia. Smith, who has been an advocate for human rights and democracy in Africa throughout his career, started Vanguard Africa “to shed a necessary spotlight on the need for free and fair processes and why they’re so important to democracy in the short and the long term, particularly in countries like the Gambia that don’t necessarily get the attention we think they deserve.”
To Smith, at the core of key issues like human rights and democratic governance is the lack of ethical and accountable leadership in many African states. “These highly entrenched leaders who have oftentimes been very abusive…they know they don’t have to use violence anymore to stay in power: they manipulate the courts, they use draconian laws…and this has allowed really repressive leaders and their regimes to stay in power.”
In the wider African context, leaders like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe – who at the age of 93 has been ruling the country since 1980 – certainly come to mind when one thinks of authoritarianism. However, there are other strongmen who fly under the radar because they rule countries that are perceived to be “stable.” These leaders are able to maintain control through corruption, cronyism, meddling with the courts, and altering their constitutions rather than through overt violence, which for the most part shields them from outside criticism.
President Paul Biya of Cameroon is one such leader. Biya has, for all intents and purposes, ruled Cameroon since 1975, even before he was officially elected president in 1982. “What you have now is a situation in which you have an ageing leader who has been in power for nearly four decades, and he’s starting to see his power slip,” says Smith. “So you’re seeing an increase in repression; you’re seeing protestors being shot and killed in the streets; you’re seeing strikes by teachers’ unions and by doctors’ unions; you’re seeing mass arrests of civil society activists and journalists… When you start seeing journalists being detained and then sentenced to prison for terrorism, you know that’s only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s a harbinger of bigger, more dangerous things to come.”
The human rights situation is deteriorating in Cameroon, a country that, like Gambia, deserves more international attention than it has attracted. Although elections are not slated until next October, many believe that they will be called sooner due to the growing unrest. Yet, the current international environment is one in which once-global leaders are shrinking away from the rest of the world and where self-interest is the main driver of foreign policy. Those who advocate for supporting human rights and good governance in Cameroon are up against leaders and policymakers who promote isolation. Smith is no stranger to this type of battle.
During Smith’s years of engagement with governance and human rights issues in Gambia, many would question the attention he was trying to garner for such a small, seemingly distant country. “People say, why should I care about the Gambia? I’ve never heard of it. But if you look at what happened there and you look at the refugee and migrant crisis that has been afflicting parts of Europe for the past several years, the Gambia was a significant contributor to that.”
Despite having the smallest population of any country in continental Africa, the Gambia had the fifth highest number of migrants who crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in the period of 2015-2016. This migration in turn contributed to the rise of ethno-nationalism and populism in many European countries, as well as in the United States. All of these events are linked, and it is this type of global thinking that is necessary to make progress toward solving some of the greatest governance and human rights challenges in the world.
In his work, Smith and his colleagues at Vanguard Africa are shining a spotlight on countries like Gambia and Cameroon where good governance has been elusive and populations are eager for change. “These incumbent leaders who are so often highly abusive and have been in power for decades, [we need to] let them know that the world is watching, and they’re not going to be able to get away with the crimes and abuses that they have committed with impunity before.” The international community, and particularly large and powerful nations like the United States, needs to demand a higher standard and call out abuses when they happen. More attention must be paid to cases like Cameroon where civil liberties are being systematically curtailed, as instability can have spillover effects regionally and globally.
So what can be done to bring attention to places like Cameroon and support their activists and civil society agitating for change? A significant first step forward is to reject the “America First” rhetoric that has been prevalent in contemporary US foreign policy. According to Smith, it is necessary to recognize the goals we share with activists in places like Cameroon and Gambia – to recognize that these struggles are broader. “It’s building a camaraderie, building a community, and building a platform with which to elevate local voices…we’re all fighting and advocating for the same issues and for the same better, more prosperous future.”
Issues of good governance and human rights extend across borders, and it’s high time that policymakers in Washington recognize this interconnectedness. Activism and international solidarity in this space is needed now more than ever.
Hayley Elszasz is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a Program Associate at World Learning. Hayley earned her BA in Political Science and Global Studies from Williams College.