Ousted Gambian president refuses to leave as successor inaugurated in Dakar

Senegalese forces prepare to remove Yahya Jammeh after election loss to Adama Barrow

Adama Barrow (left) is sworn in as president of Gambia at Gambia’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal. He was sworn into office in Senegal because Gambia’s defeated long-time ruler Yahya Jammeh refuses to step down from power. Photograph: RTS via AP

Adama Barrow (left) is sworn in as president of Gambia at Gambia’s embassy in Dakar, Senegal. He was sworn into office in Senegal because Gambia’s defeated long-time ruler Yahya Jammeh refuses to step down from power. Photograph: RTS via AP

 

He pushed international diplomacy to the limit. Twenty-two years of terror at the hands of Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh officially came to a close on Thursday as Adama Barrow was sworn in as Gambia’s new president in Dakar, Senegal. But, with Jammeh still believed to be in the presidential residence in the capital, Banjul, it was not yet over. Throughout Thursday, Gambians anxiously awaited the arrival of West African troops, backed by regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), to remove the tyrant by force.

President Barrow won elections last month, but moved to Dakar last weekend for his safety. In power since a 1994 coup, Jammeh rejected the results, filing a petition at the country’s supreme court and engaging in an 11th-hour game of political poker that included UN-brokered amnesty negotiations with Barrow’s team and talks with the visiting Mauritanian president.

Gambians were disappointed that Jammeh did not leave with the Mauritanian cortège on Wednesday night but, by Thursday morning, he was isolated, abandoned by eight ministers, his lawyer and the army chief, who declared he would not be leading soldiers into a “stupid fight” with Ecowas troops, which are being led by Senegal and Nigeria.

Despite his apparent weakness, Jammeh’s track record of unpredictability, which ranged from arbitrary jailings to claims he could cure HIV with herbal syrup and prayer, is still playing on the nation’s minds.

In Banjul, the atmosphere was like a ghost town, with military patrolling the silent streets. A few locals left sat in the vicinity of the grandiose archway into town, reserved for Jammeh’s exclusive use, drinking tea as they discussed the dictator’s seemingly imminent demise.

“Until Jammeh has left state house, we cannot feel free. I am not afraid, but I only want to see him go,” said Bobby (47), a security guard. His friend Babou Jobe (37), an electronics entrepreneur, expressed hopes that Ecowas troops would remain in Gambia for the coming months. “We need them here until all these foolish people have gone. Jammeh has everything, lands and money. He is just a pitbull in the state house, jumping on people, biting people. We need a human being in power.”

Hassan Jallow (37), who is out of work, remained in town with his wife and child, resisting the panic of a recent exodus that has seen 26,000 Gambians flee the country, according to the UN. “I am not going anywhere,” he said. “I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. The people have spoken and it is he who should go. The diplomats did what they were supposed to do. It’s not normal for him to still be in state house because his time has expired. For the past month, there has been no business, no nothing. Everything has shut down.”

The swearing-in ceremony took place at the Gambian high commission in Dakar. Barrow appealed to Ecowas and the UN Security Council to “support the government and people of the Gambia in enforcing their will”. He also asserted his role as commander-in-chief of the Gambian armed forces, warning all soldiers to remain in their barracks. All those carrying firearms would be considered rebels, he said.

“I have started to relax a bit,” said one hotel owner in the town of Serrekunda, on the outskirts of Banjul, who had stayed up all night with a meat cleaver by his side. “I feel very emotional. I am confident that things will be sorted out over this weekend.”

On the streets of Serrekunda, people celebrated Barrow’s inauguration cautiously. There is a sense that the state of emergency imposed by Jammeh on Tuesday is still in force, despite the country now having a president-in-exile with international clout. This is in marked contrast to the mass euphoria that exploded across the country after last month’s elections, before Jammeh retracted his initial acceptance of the results a week later.

With Jammeh having refused amnesty offers, including the offer of a “golden retirement” from Morocco, homeland of his wife Zeinab, people believe he will fight to the bitter end. “Until he is out, don’t say Jammeh is finished,” said Sanneh (46), a taxi driver. “He has put the country through such stress with his greed and selfishness.”

But, with each passing hour, the former president of Gambia seems increasingly out on a limb. “He is finished,” said Modou (61), an electrician working in Banjul. “What goes around comes around. He has no relationship with any country in the world.”

The UN Security Council voted unanimously on Thursday evening to offer its “full support” for Ecowas military intervention. Senegalese troops entered the country shortly after.