Ex-President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, yesterday left his country’s capital, Banjul, in a plane heading for an unspecified destination to begin a life in exile after ruling the West African country for 22 years. He was seen off by a delegation of dignitaries and soldiers on a plane reportedly bound for Guinea. Along with his wife, he left in the company of Guinean President Alpha Conde, one of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediators that prevailed on him to relinquish power.
Jammeh arrived at the airport amid a large convoy of vehicles and throngs of cheering supporters. He stood on a small platform to hear ceremonial music performed by a military band and then walked down a long red carpet surrounded by dignitaries. He climbed the steps to the plane, turned and kissed and waved a Koran at those assembled.
Jammeh had refused to vacate office when his 22-year rule expired last week, despite initially conceding defeat in last December’s election won by Adama Barrow. He however succumbed after international pressure spearheaded by ECOWAS.
His decision to quit and leave came after talks with the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania. There are no details of what deal might have been struck between Jammeh and the mediators. But Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was quoted by his country’s state news agency as saying that a deal had been struck for Jammeh to leave for another African country “with guarantees for his family, those close to him and himself”.
It is not clear where Jammeh will end up eventually. He has been offered asylum by Morocco, while Nigeria’s House of Representatives also voted in favour of granting the ex-leader a safe haven in the country.
However, it is not known if those offers still stand as Jammeh dug-in his heels and refused to vacate power, even after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari led a delegation to make him see reason, until ECOWAS forces closed in on him. Rather than being hailed as a statesman who voluntarily transferred power to an opposition candidate, he will be remembered as a sit-tight leader who had to be forced out.
ECOWAS mediators had spent several hours in talks with Jammeh two days ago (Friday) after ECOWAS soldiers suspended their advance to eject him, to allow last-minute negotiations.
The multinational military force including tanks had rolled into Gambia last Thursday after Jammeh’s tenure elapsed. The force moved in after Barrow’s inauguration and a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council supporting the regional efforts.
Reading the writing on the wall, Jammeh announced on state TV that he would step down in the interest of the Gambian people adding that it was his duty to “preserve at every instant” their lives and that it was “not necessary that a single drop of blood be shed.”
He said, “I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation with infinite gratitude to all Gambians.”
Meanwhile, President Barrow yesterday revealed plans to return to his homeland following Jammeh’s departure. Barrow has been in neighbouring Senegal for days and was inaugurated as president in the Gambian embassy in Dakar last Thursday.
On his twitter handle, @adama_barrow, the new president said, “As Yahya Jammeh officially stepped down from office — I will be returning to my homeland, the Republic of The Gambia. #NewGambia.”
Barrow confirmed to the Associated Press yesterday that he would enter Gambia once a security sweep had been completed. He also urged Gambians who had fled the country to return home. At least 46,000 people have fled Gambia for Senegal since the start of the crisis fearing unrest, the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR said, citing Senegalese government figures.
Barrow’s legitimacy as President has been recognised internationally, after he won December’s presidential election. He has pledged to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate alleged human rights abuses under Jammeh.
“In that commission I think there will be recommendations, we will act according to those recommendations but we have got to know the truth first,” he said. “I promise before Allah and the entire nation that all the issues we currently face will be resolved peacefully.”
Barrow urged caution after an online petition called for Jammeh to be arrested, and not be granted asylum. “We aren’t talking about prosecution here, we are talking about getting a truth and reconciliation commission,” Barrow told the AP. “Before you can act, you have to get the truth, to get the facts together.”