Lessons from The Gambia about Africa’s evolving post-conflict realities

A bird's eye view of Africa's peace and security environment may give the impression that good peacebuilding stories are in short supply. Yet, African Union (AU) involvement in The Gambia offers useful insights into the progress and challenges of peacebuilding efforts, particularly in post-authoritarian situations.  

In 2021, the AU Post-conflict Reconstruction and Development (PCRD) celebrates the 15th year as part of the African Peace and Security Architecture framework. The AU's engagement in the Gambia offers an opportunity to reflect on the progress of and ways of enhancing the peacebuilding architecture.

An evolving context  

The policy was designed to support post-conflict countries to consolidate peace and prevent relapse into turmoil through comprehensive, inclusive, nationally owned processes for short-, medium- and long-term stabilisation, recovery, reconstruction and development. It is underpinned by the assumption that 'post-conflict' conditions exist that allow PCRD and peacebuilding interventions to proceed. However, the nature of conflict dynamics on the continent has changed the implementation context.

Conflicts in Africa display great intractability – thus, low-intensity conflict and episodic violence persist even after main hostilities cease. The ensuing uncertainty often underscores the AU's current approach to stabilisation, which allows for intervention at different stages of the conflict cycle. PCRD initiatives are launched in member states such as Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic amid continued insecurity and instability. Thus, PCRD initiatives such as quick impact projects have had to be implemented alongside conflict prevention and mediation processes, which dilutes the AU's strategic focus, and its human resource and financial capacity.

The post-Jammeh puzzle

The Gambia reflects the shifting context in which the PCRD policy framework continues to be implemented. While it has not experienced armed conflict, the country was in dire need of political, economic and social transformation after the 22-year authoritarian rule of former president Yahya Jammeh ended in 2018.

In Africa, low-intensity conflict and episodic violence persist even after the main hostilities cease

The Gambia experience indicates that, increasingly, the AU's PCRD efforts also have to be directed towards post-authoritarian contexts and the management of difficult political transitions. Even without a history of widespread violence, post-authoritarian states have limited institutional capacity, a history of human rights abuses, economic challenges, political instability and high risk of relapse.

In such countries, PCRD processes promote democratisation, good governance, institutional capacity building, national reconciliation and transitional justice. The AU focus must be on the political legitimacy of state institutions and national ownership of PCRD efforts. However, lack of stability remains a significant obstacle to successful peacebuilding, as prevailing structural weaknesses tend to reinforce further fracturing of the state.

Experts show the way

Initially, The Gambia's government showed strong political commitment to post-Jammeh reforms, developing an ambitious national development plan and actively engaging international partners. At the government's request, the AU deployed a needs assessment mission in 2017 with the United Nations (UN), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union.

In 2018, the AU Technical Support  Team to The Gambia (AUTSTG) was constituted as the main structure to support local PCRD efforts. This support was based on national ownership, institutional development and direct engagement with government officials. AUTSTG was a small team of experts embedded in government institutions. Five members were military experts working at the Ministry of Interior, the Gambian Armed Forces and Office of the National Security Adviser to support security sector reform (SSR) processes.

A rule of law expert with the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) supported efforts to replace the 1995 constitution, while a human rights expert provided strategic guidance in establishing the National Human Rights Commission. AUTSTG also assigned an expert to work with the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

PCRD efforts must accommodate post-authoritarian contexts and difficult political transitions

AUTSTG provided a lighter footprint and cost than would have a full mission or a liaison office. In view of the struggle with mission financing, this approach enhances the AU's ability to respond to more of such situations on the continent.

Several achievements are detailed in the AUTSTG's end-of-mission report. Military experts played key roles in the establishment of the Office of National Security, restructuring of the Ministry of Defence and development of the country's security policy framework. AUTSTG also supported the development of The Gambia's first-ever national security policy, national security strategy and security sector reform strategy.

The team also promoted reconciliation and constitutional reform. Following two years of public testimonies, the TRRC is scheduled to submit its final report to the president by the end of the year. The CRC implemented its mandate and, after extensive national consultation, presented a draft constitution to the president in March 2020. Unfortunately, the country's lawmaker rejected the proposed Constitution Promulgation Bill to replace the 1995 constitution. The rejection perpetuated The Gambia's political uncertainties, which continue to affect its ability to implement PCRD interventions effectively.

Light mission, weighty agenda

The Gambia shows that smaller deployments of experts from different, relevant professional backgrounds make for integrated implementation of PCRD pillars, which delivers better results. AUTSTG's format, its work close to the field and its multidisciplinary composition proved helpful in aligning SSR, human rights, transitional justice and constitutional review processes. For example, the military experts were pivotal to the inclusion of provisions for civilian oversight of security institutions in the draft constitution. This implies that smaller, targeted PCRD teams could be viable alternatives for effective operational coordination.

The experience of The Gambia also indicates that national ownership and leadership of PCRD processes are subject to political realities and interests. Persisting contestations within the Gambian political elite adversely affected the implementation of key PCRD processes, for example stalling the constitutional review and implementation of the TRRC's recommendations.

Smaller deployments of experts from different backgrounds produce better results

This calls for the AU to design PCRD interventions on the understanding that the framework remains an inherently political process. Such interventions involve active and consistent interaction with political actors through strategic engagements, including through the AU Peace and Security Council.

Thirdly, while coordination of PCRD processes, notably SSR, is a prerogative of national actors, the AU, ECOWAS, the UN and international partners could enhance strategic coordination and provide complementary technical support. This could be achieved by, for example, reinforcing the legitimacy and capacity of national coordination mechanisms. A starting point would be identifying appropriate entry points and strengthening structures of coordinating SSR processes.

Lastly, AUTSG's experience further underscores the enduring imperative to address the AU's PCRD financing challenges. The mission used fewer resources than a larger mission or an office, but PCRD – a long-term, resource-intensive process – could not be completed within its two-year mandate and with donor-dependent funding.

The deployment shows that the AU could adopt an increasingly pragmatic PCRD approach in a policy context that departs from the original thinking underlying the framework. However, small, agile and embedded teams have shown to be effective for integrated implementation of the different PCRD pillars. But PCRD efforts also need to pay attention to strategic engagement and financial sustainability.

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