Power, Strategy, and Outcomes in Negotiations in The Gambia


According to Bill Zartman, power is defined as the “ability by one party to move another in an intended direction.”[1]Power relates to physical force, but many aspects of power move beyond force. Weaker parties often form coalitions, appeal to public opinion, use principles and morality, and leverage other strategies to build their power.[2] When parties in a negotiation are symmetric, their power levels are approximately even. Asymmetry in power arises when one party clearly possesses more power than the other.  In negotiation, the perceptions of symmetry are often more important than the reality; if a party perceives the dynamic to be symmetric, it will behave accordingly, regardless of whether such symmetry exists.[3]  

Perceptions of asymmetric or symmetric power dynamics will lead parties to pursue different approaches in negotiation, which significantly impacts the outcome of negotiations. Competitive negotiations are often aligned with a distributive approach and value claiming strategies where “negotiation serves to allocate a fixed number of items (resources or burdens) between parties with opposing interests.”[4] In these negotiations, parties usually feel that if their opponent wins, they lose. Cooperative negotiations by contrast are characterized by an integrative approach where parties work together to achieve an outcome that provides benefits to both.[5] This leads to value creating strategies, involving “new alternative solutions based on an exploration of essential interests and needs underlying formal positions in the conflict or negotiations, and exploitation of any differences among parties.”[6] According to Cecelia Albin, a satisfactory agreement usually results from both value claiming and value creating strategies.[7] Indeed, it is challenging to move adversarial parties to an integrative approach to negotiation and practice value creating strategies. However, this approach is much more likely to produce sustainable mutual gains. When both parties focus on reframing the issue for broad absolute mutual gains, the agreement becomes more sustainable than when parties practice zero-sum, value claiming strategies.

Power Symmetry, Strategy, and Outcome

Albin has proposed a specific relationship between power symmetry of parties and their preferred negotiation strategy. She argues, “in a situation of great power inequality, the stronger party may be more tempted to claim value through distributive tactics. Integrative strategies proceed from a notion of basic equality between parties and their essential concerns.” It seems logical that two equal parties would seek to work together to obtain benefits that were not attainable to either before negotiation. However, asymmetry is more likely to lead to an integrative strategy, a cooperative negotiation, and a more successful and sustainable outcome.

Factor 1: Uncertainty

Relative symmetry makes a negotiation less ripe for resolution for three specific reasons.  First, symmetry between parties creates more uncertainty about various options available during negotiation, particularly regarding escalation. As Zartman points out, symmetry leads to “deadlock.”[8] Although this deadlock may have led to a stalemate initiating negotiating, it is not helpful for resolution through negotiation. Symmetric parties will remain immovable, as they fear losing out to the other at any scale, and neither has the force to make the other move.[9]  In other words, when parties are more equivalent, gaining or losing small relative advantages has a larger impact on conflict dynamics. Parties will be wary of any agreement or concession that may lead to a small loss of relative power. 

Additionally, the outcome of escalation is less clear. This creates temptations by both parties to pursue escalation strategies to try to create leverage during negotiations and seek better options than the negotiated outcome. If they negotiate, they will use value claiming strategies to negotiate for those relative gains. These kinds of negotiations produce more limited and fragile outcomes when parties do not feel that they can attain mutual benefits and refuse to trust each other. Under more asymmetric relationships, the weaker party better ascertains the costs of attempted escalation and has little capability to change the dynamics. The stronger party has more leverage to force an agreement on its terms, but it may prefer negotiation and offering concessions over exercising its asymmetric power. The weaker party would suffer more from the stronger one’s use of power, but this does not guarantee that the stronger party goes unharmed.  Thus, incentives exist for both to move to a value creating approach.

Factor 2: Time

Secondly, symmetric relationships benefit from less time pressure. In this “deadlock” described by Zartman, the parties will attempt different forms of escalation, conduct scenario-planning exercises, or let time pass and see if environmental factors change.[10] Whereas, high asymmetry often leads the stronger party to offer generous concessions that appeal to the weaker party to avoid the continuation of the mutually hurting stalemate (MHS). If the parties are more symmetrical, they cannot afford to offer such generous concessions out of concern that this would permanently skew conflict dynamics in their opponent’s favor.  

Additionally, the stronger actor has the leverage to threaten to act unilaterally and cause disproportionate harm to the weaker party. This could involve filling a dam or launching a large military offensive. Moreover, under asymmetric dynamics, there is an increased risk that the stronger party completely dominates the weaker party, which could lose entirely. All these factors create urgency for the weaker party to seek resolution. Again, the stronger party also has incentive to negotiate. For example, even if it has the capability to destroy the other party, it may cause itself harm for doing so. This could occur through loss of life, a hit to its domestic or international reputation, or decreased stability compared to a negotiated solution.

Factor 3: Behavioral Constraints

Finally, asymmetric dynamics constrain the behavior of the weaker party more than with symmetric parties. As mentioned previously, the weaker party usually does not attempt to escalate because it is clearer that it will likely fail. In addition, the weaker party knows it will have to make concessions. It can have no illusions about the possibility of achieving 100% of its goals, as it may be tempted to believe under symmetric dynamics. The stronger party still has incentive to seek a negotiated outcome rather than pursuing more aggressive and risky strategies that could cause mutual harm. Under symmetric dynamics, even under MHS, the parties can perceive ways of obtaining a competitive edge that still enable them to achieve 100% of their goals however unlikely.

Symmetry leads to a competitive and value claiming strategy where each side cannot know the outcome of their decisions and thus is tempted to pursue relative gains to get the upper hand.  Since a minor change in dynamics could give one side an advantage on the battlefield or in negotiations, parties will compete aggressively to find that relative advantage. More asymmetric relationships will lead to a more cooperative and value creating strategy because it is clearer to both parties that negotiation is the best available option. In short, the consequences of escalation are clear to both parties. Both understand that they will not get everything they want in relative terms, but they can use value creation to produce mutually beneficial outcomes. Moving to a value creating strategy is far more difficult when equal powers are more wary of relative gains or losses. Ultimately though, this serves as the key to producing a sustainable negotiation outcome.

Symmetry and Value Claiming in The Gambia

In the case of The Gambia in 2016, former President Jammeh shockingly lost an election that most anticipated as rigged in his favor.[11] He initially admitted defeat and congratulated his opponent Adama Barrow, but he backtracked a week later, rejecting the results based on “irregularities.”[12] He then deployed the military and went into hiding.[13] Both international and domestic audiences reacted by condemning him, and he became isolated politically besides the support of the military.[14] From his perspective, he viewed his primary objective as maintaining his same level of rule in the country. He had a secondary interest of personal security, including a potential plan for an emergency escape if the country destabilized. He also had legal concerns that he could face trial in The Gambia or in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Finally, he had financial interests in assuring that he could maintain his luxurious standard of living that he enjoyed during his rule. Overall, he held a weak position where he would have to rule by military force under international sanctions, which would have made his regime highly unstable. 

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a delegation to Banjul immediately following Jammeh’s refusal to step down.[15] As a body, ECOWAS prided itself on an increasingly respected reputation for promotion of democratic norms.[16] It had an interest in maintaining this reputation for stability and attracting international investment. However, it was also reluctant to violate the sovereignty of a member state through an armed invasion that could cost both sides loss of economic and human capital. Thus, at the beginning of negotiations, the delegation hesitated to raise the threat of force, and anyways it had weak capacity without any powerful political or military force inside of The Gambia. Ideally for them, Jammeh would step down peacefully and stand trial in The Gambia or the ICC. Unfortunately, his protection by the military made this scenario nearly impossible.

This situation lent itself to negotiation because of the MHS; Jammeh’s compromised position made overthrow or regime collapse a high possibility, and ECOWAS’ reputation suffered each day that Jammeh clung to power, implying that they failed to respond forcefully. This presented a mutually enticing opportunity for the parties to achieve an outcome better than the status quo, though unideal for both. Thus, ECOWAS focused on providing Jammeh immunity from prosecution and financial incentives in exchange for him stepping down.  

However, negotiations stalled for over a month because parties found themselves in symmetrically weak positions. Symmetric power dynamics introduce uncertainty into the outcomes of other alternative options like waiting out the instability, cracking down strongly on dissent, or building relationships with powerful benefactors. Although highly unlikely, Jammeh still had a chance of succeeding in protecting all his interests, including his primary interest of maintaining rule. Perhaps, he perceived this possibility as even more plausible than in reality. 

Notably, Jammeh could only take the time to consider alternatives because it seemed that ECOWAS neither could nor would stop him. His behavior went unconstrained by the other power, which fortunately did not lead to a disastrous crackdown or another catastrophe, but this certainly did not push him to make a deal either. These alternatives clearly failed to produce a better outcome for Jammeh during this month, but it is possible he would have found an alternative if the symmetry in power continued.[17] ECOWAS also questioned the effectiveness of alternatives such as international sanctions to coerce Jammeh to step down peacefully without the threat of force. Similarly, ECOWAS may have misjudged the likelihood.  In any case, they would have had to wait for sanctions to take effect, lengthening the timeframe for resolution through negotiation. Jammeh by himself obviously could not constrain ECOWAS’ ability to attempt these alternatives.

Under these circumstances, the parties needed to practice value claiming strategies because their primary interests contradicted each other, yet neither party could force the other off their position. Jammeh aimed to retain his reign and ECOWAS wanted him to step down and face trial. ECOWAS did not have the asymmetric power to eliminate the possibility of Jammeh achieving his primary objective. Equally, Jammeh could not convert his small army into a force to compel ECOWAS to abandon its goal. Thus, neither possessed incentives at this time to move to a value creating strategy, where parties abandon their primary interests to make an agreement more mutually beneficial than the status quo. Negotiation efforts reportedly included arrangements for Jammeh to step down in exchange for immunity and financial benefits.[18]  However, Jammeh refused to move to a negotiated settlement until power dynamics became asymmetric. He instead used the negotiations as a backup plan while he explored other alternatives; after being granted exile in Equatorial Guinea, it became apparent that he had used that time to steal about $1 billion USD from government coffers.[19]

Asymmetry and Value Creating Solutions in The Gambia

On January 18, 2017, ECOWAS disrupted the symmetry by moving troops to the border of The Gambia and threatening an invasion if President Jammeh did not step down before the inauguration of newly elected President Barrow the following day.[20] This did not resolve the uncertainty in President Jammeh’s calculations, so he did not immediately react, hoping to call ECOWAS’ bluff. However, the following day, ECOWAS troops crossed the border into The Gambia.[21] This finally broke the deadlock and created conditions for resolution. 

Firstly, this provided clarification on Jammeh’s ability to escalate and corresponding consequences. No uncertainty remained regarding ECOWAS’ commitment to removing him.  Jammeh’s forces could not overcome ECOWAS’ and would have likely abandoned him.  ECOWAS also created time pressure by threatening the use of force if Jammeh did not step down the following day. This time pressure also applied to ECOWAS; having made a threat attached to a specific timeline, it would lose credibility internationally and among member states if it did not follow through. Furthermore, ECOWAS definitively constrained Jammeh’s behavior by eliminating his primary objective of maintaining rule as an option. He had to consider benefits that only negotiation could provide or confront the likelihood of arrest and trial in the ICC or The Gambia.  

Additionally, ECOWAS had always preferred a diplomatic solution.[22] An invasion would have caused casualties on both sides, likely including civilians. The possibility of any war atrocities could have hurt ECOWAS’ reputation. ECOWAS also wanted to avoid being viewed by the region and international community as interfering with a member state’s sovereignty. Lastly, there is the question of what role ECOWAS would play in the transition. Would ECOWAS need to occupy The Gambia for the short term? What military, political, and reputational consequences would result from such an occupation? Ultimately, ECOWAS as the stronger party preferred to negotiate a peaceful exit for President Jammeh as opposed to risking the serious potential consequences of an invasion.  

This asymmetry allowed both parties to move to a value creating strategy to produce an outcome that provided absolute gains to both parties. For the sake of preventing further harm, both parties abandoned their primary objectives. They successfully “explored essential interests and needs underlying formal positions.”[23] To avoid arrest and criminal trial, Jammeh sacrificed his goal to remain leader of The Gambia. Evading imprisonment had become more essential than retaining his status. However, it took asymmetry to move him away from insistence on staying in power. To avoid bloodshed and other consequences of an invasion, ECOWAS agreed to drop the part of its primary objective where Jammeh would face trial in order to realize its essential intent to get Jammeh to step down without bloodshed. An agreement allowed both to achieve their essential interests. Jammeh angled for immunity, safe passage away from The Gambia, and financial incentives in exchange for his abnegation. The final agreement made no mention of money, but it provided for safe passage and legal protections for Jammeh and his family.[24] On January 22, 2017, President Jammeh boarded a flight to Equatorial Guinea.[25] He has not returned to The Gambia since.[26]


In conclusion, while it may seem intuitive that symmetric parties will be more likely to work cooperatively and produce a more mutually beneficial and sustainable outcome, this logic does not hold in real life. Symmetry creates deadlock and uncertainty about how different alternatives may shift the balance of power. Parties will take time to examine or execute alternative strategies because their behavior is not constrained by a more powerful opponent. Since gaining a minor advantage may significantly impact the balance of power, parties lack incentive to move to a search for a mutually beneficial outcome. They will practice competitive negotiations to try to achieve a small relative gain over an opponent. But parties will be unlikely to trust each other or make any concessions that could risk giving their opponent the upper hand. This does not provide a path to a sustainable and mutually beneficial solution. 

When parties are asymmetric, however, there is less uncertainty regarding the consequences of escalation. The weaker knows it cannot move the stronger. The strong party limits the weaker’s behavior, so the strong has the ability to push the weaker into compromise on its terms. However, it is more likely to offer generous concessions because it is not as afraid of losing relative power as symmetric parties would be. Finally, despite the stronger party’s upper hand, it is still incentivized to make an agreement because there are potential negative consequences of the stronger party exercising unilateral power over the weaker. These consequences could be moral, political, financial, and more. Thus, as demonstrated by Jammeh and ECOWAS, we should expect symmetrical conflicts to remain deadlocked until one party gains a competitive advantage, pushing the other to accept a deal that benefits both the stronger and weaker.

[1] Bill Zartman, Negotiation and Conflict Management Essays on theory and practice, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 102.

[2]Zartman, Negotiation and Conflict Management, 112-114.

[3] Zartman, Negotiation and Conflict Management, 109.

[4]Cecilia Albin, How Negotiations Fail, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 272.

[5] Albin, How Negotiations Fail, 272.

[6] Albin, How Negotiations Fail, 271.

[7] Albin, How Negotiations Fail, 270.

[8] Zartman, Negotiation and Conflict Management, 109.

[9] Zartman, Negotiation and Conflict Management, 109.

[10] Zartman, Negotiation and Conflict Management, 109.

[11] “Gambia’s Jammeh loses to Adama Barrow in shock election result,” BBC, December 2, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38183906 .

[12] “Gambia crisis: Ecowas ‘could send troops’ if Jammeh refuses to go,” BBC, December 13, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38271480 .

[13] Ruth Mclean, “The Gambia: life goes on in Banjul as Yahya Jammeh clings to power,” The Guardian, December 11, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/11/the-gambia-election-results-yahya-jammeh-adama-barrow-troops-banjul .

[14] Maggie Dwyer, “Gambia: Why the army may be the key to getting Jammeh to step down,” African Arguments, December 16, 2016, https://africanarguments.org/2016/12/16/gambia-why-the-army-may-be-the-key-to-getting-jammeh-to-step-down/ .

[15] Dwyer, “Gambia.”

[16] Jon Temin and Isabel Linzer, “West Africa’s Democratic Progress is Slipping Away, Even as Region’s Significance Grows,” Freedom House, March 19, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/article/west-africas-democratic-progress-slipping-away-even-regions-significance-grows-0 .

[17] Pap Saine, “Gambia’s Jammeh says steps down after military pressure from neighbours,” Reuters, January 21, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/gambia-politics-idUSL5N1FB03C .

[18] Dwyer, “Gambia.”

[19] David Pegg, “Gambian ex-president stole almost $1bn before fleeing country,” The Guardian, March 27, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/27/gambias-ex-president-stole-almost-1bn-before-fleeing-country .

[20] Paul Nantulya, “Lessons from Gambia on Effective Regional Security Cooperation,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, March 27, 2017, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/gambia-regional-security-cooperation/ .

[21] Nantulya, “Lessons from Gambia.”

[22] Nantulya, “Lessons from Gambia.”

[23] Albin, How Negotiations Fail, 270.

[24] “Note to Correspondents – Joint Declaration on the Political Situation in The Gambia,” The United Nations, January 21, 2017, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/note-correspondents/2017-01-21/note-correspondents-joint-declaration-political-situation .

[25] “Yahya Jammeh warned not to return to The Gambia,” BBC, January 12, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51082371 .

[26] BBC, “Yahya Jammeh warned.”

Nick Bailey
Nick Bailey

Nick Bailey has worked on democracy and human rights programming in Sub-Saharan Africa at Freedom House. He is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, having served in Togo and Benin. He is currently a Master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies specializing in Conflict Management and International Economics.