Gambians flee to Senegal fearing war over Barrow inauguration
Dictator Yahya Jammeh lost elections but may not concede presidency on Thursday
Children on a minibus from Gambia to Senegal on Monday. Thousands are fleeing Gambia amid fears that long-time dictator Yahya Jammeh will tip the country into war rather than accept a peaceful handover of power. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
A minibus being loaded at Bundung station in Gambia, as people flee to Senegal amid tensions over the planned inauguration of a new president. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
TV salesman Kaba Fall (far right) and two young Gambian women on a minibus bound for Senegal amid tensions over the transition to a new presidency. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
Gambia’s long-time president Yahya Jammeh, who initially accepted his defeat in a presidential election in December, but then changed his mind. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images
Gambia’s president-elect Adama Barrow, who is due to be sworn in on Thursday. Photograph: Seyllou /AFP/Getty Images
Business is booming at Bundung bus station. Men, women and children pile into a battered minibus, while suitcases, flour sacks and a bicycle are hurriedly loaded on to the roof rack. They are fleeing Gambia, fearful that long-time dictator Yahya Jammeh will tip the country into war.
A ticket to the safety of Senegal costs 65 dalasi (€1.43). Abdolie, a 46-year-old charity worker, buys five for himself, his wife and their three boys. “It is not safe here,” he says, as the minibus rattles down the dusty road to the border. “I need to get my kids out of the way. I can save myself, but maybe I cannot save them.”
Once they reach the Senegalese border, Abdolie will bid farewell to his family and head back to his hometown of Serekunda, on the outskirts of Banjul, where he will anxiously wait and see which way the chips fall at midnight on Wednesday.
Wednesday is supposed to be Jammeh’s last day in power. The president, whose 22-year rule was characterised by random acts of caprice, ranging from arbitrary jailings of opponents to a bizarre witch hunt instigated after his aunt fell ill, lost elections last month to a coalition of opposition groups led by estate agent Adama Barrow.
But after a magnanimous concession speech that stunned the nation, Jammeh had a change of heart and challenged the poll results at the country’s dysfunctional supreme court, which seems unlikely to rule until May. Now, as the 16-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) threatens military intervention to dislodge the tyrant – a stance dubbed an “act of war” by Jammeh – thousands are rushing to Senegal.
Barrow, the president-elect, himself is staying in Dakar, where he has been advised to remain for his personal safety until his scheduled inauguration on Thursday. This has prevented him from returning home for the funeral of his eight-year-old son who, it was reported on Monday, died after being bitten by a dog.
Like many Gambians, Abdolie is waiting to see how many of the national troops who pledged allegiance to Jammeh after his volte-face will abandon him once his time is up. As a fog of rumour and speculation descends over the country, he is torn between hoping for the best and fearing the worst. “Nobody knows what is going on,” he says.
For now, the best he can do is get his children to safety. As the tension mounts, Serekunda has become eerily subdued, with some shops and schools closing. When Abdolie’s eight-year-old went to school last week, there were only three other pupils in class.
In the village of Birkama, the minibus breaks down, its 26 passengers spilling out on to the roadside, while the driver runs off to find a replacement drive shaft. Over a period of half an hour, 13 buses pass by, all bound for the border, their roofs laden with luggage.
Two Senegalese passengers, Amadila Dialo and Djiby Mdiay, are keen to talk about the planned Ecowas military intervention, which would reportedly be led by Nigeria and Senegal. Dialo, who has been working as a carpenter in Gambia for 15 years, fears that Senegalese involvement could lead to reprisals against immigrants.
“Jammeh put it into Gambians’ heads that Senegal wants to annex Gambia. So some people may turn against the Senegalese,” says his friend Mdiay. “Ecowas need to calm the situation over the next few weeks, otherwise there could be a tribal war.”
The minibus happens to be heading to the Senegalese enclave of Casamance, which is still recovering from a bitter separatist struggle led by Jola rebels, which lasted for more than 30 years until a 2014 ceasefire.
Jammeh, who is Jola, has ancestral roots in Casamance and was long supportive of the separatists. Hostile to Senegal, he has always enjoyed high levels of cross-border Jola support, allegedly bringing in Senegalese Jola to vote in Gambian elections. At home, critics accuse him of having stirred conflict between the minority Jola and the Mandinka, Fulani and Wolof.
Tribal rivalries aside, Senegal’s potential role in the looming Ecowas intervention is a touchy subject overall. “Even though Senegal would not be coming to fight, but to solve the problem, many would think it was coming to make war,” says Abdolie. Though he is supportive of Senegal helping to clear the way for Barrow’s ascension, he worries about the potential backlash.
As the minibus gets going with a new drive shaft, other Gambian passengers, up to now uneasy about talking, begin to warm to the conversation. A couple of young women with a live chicken are heading to their mother’s place. “We are coming back in two weeks when everything will be peaceful,” says one with an optimistic smile.
Kaba Fall, a TV salesman, who is travelling with a flatscreen in a laundry bag, says that many of his friends have already gone. “If the trouble goes, I will come back,” he says. And if it doesn’t? “Then I will stay. I can stay with my family in Dakar. I have customers there.”
At the border post in Séléti, on the Senegalese side, a guard tells The Irish Times that 1,400 have entered the country since 7am today. “And we are only half way through the day,” he says. The weekend saw a big jump in numbers, he says. Normally, there are fewer than 400 arrivals each day.
Back in Gambia, the situation is going right down to the wire. After dropping off his wife and children, Abdolie will be back in Serekunda by dusk.
“I think there will be a solution,” he says. “If there is not a solution, it is a catastrophe for the Gambia.”