Yahya Jammeh to step down, new Gambian president says
Adama Barrow says former leader to go into exile as army chief refuses to defend him
Adama Barrow: called for regional and international support after being sworn into office on Thursday. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times
Gambia’s embattled, long-time leader Yahya Jammeh, who lost a December election but refused to recognise the result, has agreed to step down and go into exile, a close adviser to new president Adama Barrow has said.
On Friday, Gambia’s army chief had abandoned Mr Jammeh, saying his forces would not fight against a military operation to remove him, as regional leaders led a last-ditch effort to convince him to flee into exile.
The defection of General Ousman Badjie, who had previously stood by Mr Jammeh, removed what may have been the former coup leader’s last remaining pillar of support and potentially raised the likelihood of a peaceful solution to the political impasse.
Mr Barrow, who won December’s election, was sworn into office on Thursday and immediately called for regional and international support. West African militaries announced soon after that they had crossed into Gambia.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone, Gen Badjie said he recognised Mr Barrow as the army’s commander-in-chief and would welcome, not fight, the regional force. “We are going to welcome them with flowers and make them a cup of tea,” he said. “This is a political problem. It’s a misunderstanding. We are not going to fight Nigerian, Togolese or any military that comes.”
West African leaders Alpha Conde of Guinea and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania had flown to the capital Banjul on Friday to allow Mr Jammeh one last chance to cede power peacefully. UN officials, including Mohammed Ibn Chambas, UN special representative for West Africa and the Sahel, were also involved in the talks.
The military operation was halted late on Thursday to give mediation a chance, and a midday deadline was extended on Friday as negotiations, which diplomats said were focusing on a deal to grant Mr Jammeh immunity from prosecution, continued.
“There is a real possibility this could work. I don’t think he is going the [Saddam] Hussein route,” said a regional diplomat, referring to the Iraqi leader who was arrested in 2003 following an invasion, tried and hanged.
A senior official from regional bloc Ecowas, under whose mandate the military operation was launched, said late on Thursday that there was no question that Mr Jammeh would be allowed to remain in Gambia, even if he agreed to step down.
Mr Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup, initially conceded defeat to Mr Barrow following a December 1st election before back-tracking, saying the vote was flawed and demanding a new ballot. Late on Thursday, he dissolved the government – half of whose members had already resigned – and pledged to name a new one.
His estate – located just 1km from the border with Senegal, Gambia’s sole neighbour, which surrounds it on three sides – was heavily fortified on Friday, witnesses say.
Ecowas says its intervention, dubbed Operation Restore Democracy, involves 7,000 troops and is backed by tanks and warplanes. Forces have already entered Gambia from the southeast, southwest and north.
The size of Gambia’s army is unclear, but estimates of range from 800 to up to 2,500 soldiers. While Barrow’s election victory last month and inauguration on Thursday were celebrated by many across the tiny nation of fewer than two million people, support for Mr Jammeh remained strong among some Gambians, who opposed the military intervention.
“Why should the other countries interfere? Why should they force him to leave?” said Momodou Badji (78) in Banjul’s Kanifing neighbourhood.
Gambia is of little strategic significance, but if a peaceful transition of power fails, it would be a setback for the advance of democracy in Africa.