African Leaders Arrive in Gambia to Convince Jammeh to Step Down

Updated on
  • Negotiations are bid to avoid full-scale military intervention
  • Talks continue as midday deadline set by West Africa passes

Adama Barrow, center, in Banjul, Gambia, on Dec. 13, 2016.

Photographer: Sylvain Cherkaoui/AP

Two West African leaders arrived in Gambia to persuade former President Yahya Jammeh to step down after a midday deadline set by a regional military force passed.

Guinean President Alpha Conde and Mauritanian leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz arrived Friday in the Gambian capital, Banjul, Mauritania’s state-owned news agency, AMI, reported. They’re leading negotiations to convince Jammeh to vacate his office before West African troops resume their offensive to install the elected president, Adama Barrow.

The 7,000-member intervention force established by the Economic Community of West African States gave Jammeh until noon Friday to quit. It crossed into Gambia Thursday after Barrow took his oath of office in neighboring Senegal and the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution giving “full support” to Ecowas to enforce the outcome of last month’s elections, when Barrow’s victory ended Jammeh’s two-decade rule.

“We are still awaiting Ecowas’s order,” Senegalese army spokesman Abdoul Ndiaye said by phone Friday from the capital, Dakar. “Troops maintain their positions.”

Barrow, 51, described his inauguration Thursday as “a victory of the Gambian nation” and urged the country’s armed forces to “demonstrate their loyalty to me as their commander-in-chief.” The crisis started when Jammeh, who’s been in office since 1994 and once vowed to rule for a billion years, surprised the nation of fewer than 2 million people by acknowledging he lost the vote before changing his mind and casting doubt over the results.

Entrenched Rulers

Following the ouster of Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compoare, in 2014 and successful democratic transfers of power in countries including Nigeria and Ghana, West Africa is “trending away from entrenched, long-standing rulers,” Adeline Van Houtte, Africa analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said by e-mail from London.

“The resort to military action would be unprecedented in the Ecowas region, as the intervention would take place while the local population and overall regional stability are not immediately threatened,” Van Houtte said.

Marcel de Souza, president of the Ecowas Commission, said Thursday that Gambia is “encircled.” He issued a warning to Jammeh, saying, “if he persists, Ecowas will dislodge him by force” in comments broadcast by Senegal’s RFM radio station.

Gambia’s Celebration

News of Barrow’s swearing-in prompted crowds in Banjul and nearby residential neighborhoods to pour into the streets Thursday to celebrate with chants of “Gambia has decided.”

“We cherish freedom and we got our freedom and no one will take it away from us,” said resident Ebrima Lowe. “Even some soldiers are jubilating with us and we do not have any problem since we are all happy for the change.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called Barrow after his inauguration to express his backing.

“The secretary-general told President Barrow of his full support for his determination, and Ecowas’s historic decision, with the unanimous backing of the Security Council, to restore the rule of law in the Gambia so as to honor and respect the will of the Gambian people,” according to a spokesman.

The West African force with troops from regional states including Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana faces a military with about 1,425 personnel in its army, navy and gendarmerie combined, according to the news website DefenceWeb. There’s likely to be little resistance, according to Sean Smith, West Africa analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

Little Resistance

“Ecowas’s use of force to uphold an election result marks a historic moment for African democracy -- it’s the first time they have intervened in such a manner,” he said by phone from London. “However, the case of Gambia is exceptional because it’s by far the smallest country on the continent and I’d be wary to see this as a model to be replicated in bigger nations.”

The crisis prompted thousands of Gambians to flee, piling mattresses, chairs and other household goods on taxis crossing the border, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees saying that Senegalese authorities estimate that about 45,000 people have arrived. Travel company Thomas Cook Group said it was flying back about 1,000 U.K. customers. Gambia depends on tourists from the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands for the bulk of its revenue.

— With assistance by Yinka Ibukun, Kambiz Foroohar, Olivier Monnier, Oudaa Marouf, and Ekow Dontoh

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