West Africa has witnessed a series of peaceful presidential and legislative elections, held in accordance with democratic standards and principles recognized by the African Union, ECOWAS and the United Nations. Contrary to undemocratic practices in the past, marked by coups d’état and protracted regimes, political change is gradually taking root in the region.
More than a trend, it is now a political reality guided by Africans own awareness -citizens as well as leaders- that development can only be achieved through a new political culture based on good governance and respect for human rights. Undoubtedly, there is still some way to go. Yet, no one can deny the recent democratic progress that West Africa is experiencing.
From Nigeria to The Gambia, to Benin and Ghana - to mention just a few examples - African leaders and citizens have demonstrated great political maturity and a strong sense of responsibility that must be welcomed and supported. The last ten elections in the West Africa region, apart from some incidents between supporters of the various candidates in some of these countries, were held peacefully.
In this context, the example of The Gambia is significant. In a country that has been under autocratic rule for more than two decades, there has been little room for peaceful political change.
Who would have thought that elections could be held freely? That the electoral commission could be independent and announce results ousting the ruling power? And finally, who could have foreseen that the Gambians would peacefully vote and wait with a great sense of responsibility for the first results, and then again for the resolution of the political crisis triggered by Yahya Jammeh's refusal to recognize the candidate of the opposition coalition, Adama Barrow, as the third elected president of the Gambia?
This political maturity and sense of responsibility are also the foundation of the regional preventive diplomacy that eased the departure of former President Jammeh and allowed a peaceful resolution of the crisis. The joint ECOWAS-AU-UN mediation dispatched to Banjul in the aftermath of Jammeh's refusal to leave power testifies to the willingness of the countries in the region and of the regional organizations to ensure that the legal framework for peaceful transfers of power is scrupulously respected. It also testifies to the determination of regional organizations to claim ownership of problems and solutions in a preventive approach to safeguard peace and stability in the region.
The personal involvement of the Presidents of Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mauritania and Guinea during the crisis further illustrates this resolve.
The non-violent departure of Yahya Jammeh and inauguration of Adama Barrow is a success of regional preventive diplomacy. It is also the result of the exemplary attitude of Gambians. But the success of the regional preventive diplomacy can only be complete and effective if The Gambia is committed to pursuing the process of political change by abiding by democratic principles.
The decision of the new President Adama Barrow to set up a joint transition team composed of members of the former and new administration demonstrates the new authorities' commitment to the democratic process. The international community who was mobilized during the post-election crisis to assert the rule of law and the constitution must now provide the necessary support to the Gambia for the consolidation of this political change and accompany the Gambians in their future aspirations.
For this reason, the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), in the wake of President Barrow's return to Banjul, deployed an expert on political transitions to support the incoming and outgoing administrations in ensuring a smooth transition and peaceful change of power. In the coming days, the joint transition team will submit its report to President Adama Barrow. This will mark the end of the transition period and will launch the beginning of a new political era.
But the latter cannot constitute an end in itself as political, economic and social challenges are numerous and require a strong political commitment from the new authorities.
60 per cent of the Gambians live in poverty and one third of the population live with less than $ 1.25 per day in a country where there is a widening budget deficit that reaches 7 per cent of GDP in 2016.
In this context, the new Gambian government will undoubtedly put in place economic recovery plans and launch structural reforms. The recent result of the legislative elections of April 6 should help the new government implement its reforms plan.
Regional preventive diplomacy was crucial to safeguard the will of the Gambian people, and to strengthen peace in a region. A peaceful political transition is fundamental for consolidating the gains of a political change through free elections. The United Nations, in particular, UNOWAS, in coordination with regional organizations, will continue to support The Gambia in this important phase of its history.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas is the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for West Africa and the Sahel.