Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
Last year, I wrote on this site a defence of one of the central foundations of improvement and success in both our society and around the world: capitalism. Capitalism, free markets and free trade have raised living standards around the world and brought millions out of poverty, but there is always a danger that we focus too much on the flaws and not enough on the gigantic positives.
Today, I am writing about another key foundation stone of the success of our country, and improvement in the lives of people around the world: democracy. The power of democracy in the West was demonstrated on both sides of the Atlantic last year. Whether or not you were a supporter of Donald Trump, and whether or not you were a supporter of Britain leaving the European Union, the strength of democracy cannot have been missed. Whether you greeted Trump with anguish or Brexit with a cheer, you were shown the difference that the people can make in a democracy. With simply putting votes in ballot boxes, the political paths of these two countries have been dragged into a new direction.
But again, some can be distracted by perceived flaws in democracy, and end up missing its importance and its successes. Some of those who supported the losing sides of these two political battles have been so stunned by the outcome that they have attempted to delegitimise the new President Trump or ask for a second European Referendum. Although it seems far off, there may well come a time when we must defend democracy as the society strengthening and people freeing tool that it is.
However, what took my eye on this issue this week was not Theresa May’s excellent speech on Brexit, or President Trump’s inauguration. It was the political situation in The Gambia.
The Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa, a sliver of a state surrounded by Senegal on all sides except for the sea. President Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994, and ruled the country until holding elections last year, when he surprisingly lost to Adama Barrow. The Gambia had previously been considered a one party state, where only Jammeh’s party had a chance of winning power, but all of this suddenly came to an end as a result of the votes of the people.
Africa has had a history of all too few safe, stable political transitions of power. So it was a reason for celebration when Jammeh first announced that he would accept the result; then one of concern and trepidation when he further announced he would seek to annul it, and implemented a 90-day state of emergency.
Given the sad history of political violence in Africa, there was certainly reason to fear what could happen next. But what actually occurred was a regional show of solidarity with the electoral choice of the Gambian people. The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, said clearly that the result must be respected and Jammeh must go. After he ignored these calls and a number of deadlines, Senegal moved troops first to the border, and then into the Gambia itself, and Nigeria provided its air force to back them up.
After talks with the Presidents of Guinea and Mauritania, on Saturday Jammeh announced that he would step down and go into exile, and that ‘there was no need for a single drop of blood to be shed’. It seems disaster has been avoided, and the issue is moving to a happy resolution.
It has been fabulous to see ECOWAS stand up and enforce democracy in their own region. For so long the USA and Europe have felt the need to be the cheerleaders of democracy around the world; with many counterproductive results. Democracy has to be about placing power in the hands of the people, and it is too easy for tyrants to set themselves up against old imperial powers when there are threats of enforcement from the West. ECOWAS has not only shown itself to be prepared and willing to ensure that the will of the people is enacted, but impressively united and capable in its work.
Democracy is a fabulous thing. It provides every person with a stake in society, and a chance to change it if enough of their fellow citizens agree. It provides an incentive to reduce corruption, enhance governance and grow economies in return for electoral reward. It provides freedom, and always gives the people ultimate power over the state.
Democracy is good for growth, rule of law, and stability and that is why ECOWAS has stood up and defended it. As democracy grows, it is sure to benefit not just West Africa, but the whole continent. It has been wonderful to see another peaceful political transition of power in Africa, and each transition will make the next easier. ECOWAS’s support for democracy has been and will be vital. We should all welcome it, and celebrate the stability, economic growth and people power it will provide.