The Gambia’s new president has declared that the “rule of fear” is over in the country, as it appeared that a deal had been reached for his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh, to relinquish power and go into exile.
After 12 hours of talks, Mauritania’s president, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, confirmed to the Guardian that an agreement had been reached. “There is a deal,” he said. Asked if Jammeh would be leaving the country, he said: “The outgoing president will travel very soon.”
Abdel Aziz was joined in the last-ditch diplomatic effort in the Gambian capital, Banjul, to persuade the incumbent to step down, supported by Guinea’s Alpha Condé and the UN’s regional chief, Mohammed Ibn Chambas. But midday and 4pm deadlines for Jammeh’s departure passed.
In the early hours of Saturdya morning, Abdul Aziz told the Guardian: “We are very happy. It’s a victory for the country against violence. We’re delighted to have reached this deal, which saves the Gambia, the Gambian people.
“President Jammeh cedes power; he has given his speech. We have reached an agreement which saves the country and guarantees peace for The Gambia, which assures security, dignity and honour for the outgoing president.
“The outgoing president is going to leave as soon as the conditions are met – very soon, certainly.” Abdel Aziz did not say what these conditions were.
Later, Jammeh appeared on Gambian state TV. “I believe in the importance of dialogue … I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of this great nation,” he said.
“All the issues we currently face can be resolved peacefully. I believe in the capacity of Africans to decide for themselves all the issues on the way to democracy, social and economic development.
“My prayer and desire [is] that peace and security continue to reign in The Gambia.” The country “must jealously guard and defend” peace, he said.
Addressing members of the Gambian diaspora in the capital of Senegal on Friday night, Barrow said: “The rule of fear has been vanished from the Gambia for good.”
After a 22-year rule Jammeh lost last month’s election but ignored multiple deadlines to quit. Earlier this week Jammeh imposed a state of emergency in a final attempt to hang on to power.
A regional military force that crossed the border in support of Barrow was awaiting orders on Friday. Marcel Alain de Souza, chair of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), said troops would force Jammeh out if he refused to leave the country. The troops entered the Gambia on Thursday night, hours after Barrow was inaugurated as president in Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal.
Earlier on Friday, Gen Ousman Badjie, the Gambia’s chief of defence staff, said there would be no war, as a political crisis should be resolved politically. “When our brothers [from the regional Ecowas force] come, we’ll welcome them with a cup of tea and they’ll put down their weapons and we’ll enjoy the smiling coast of Africa,” he said. “Why should we fight for everything? I love my soldiers and I love the Gambian people.”
However, he later told the Guardian he was “very angry” with Ecowas for sending troops to force Jammeh out, adding: “We are a peaceful nation.”
He denied that troops had crossed into the Gambia at all, saying that they were “not one metre” over the border, despite the head of the incoming force telling the Guardian they had crossed and were being well received by Gambians. However, he pledged his allegiance to Barrow. “I have a new commander in chief now,” he said.
Speaking on the airport tarmac as he waited for the Mauritanian president to finish mediating and leave the country, Badjie said he thought Jammeh would not be arrested but would be allowed to go back to his home village and given the status of a former head of state.
He said the former president probably wanted to go to Kanilai. “He has farms there. Can’t he go there and tend his animals and wait for the the next election? Three years is not a long time.”
Jammeh’s security forces had also begun to desert him. “Nobody wants to die for this,” a source close to the presidency said, adding that many Jungulars, Jammeh’s loyalists who are known to carry out his orders to torture and kill, had left the president’s side.
Gambian soldiers guarding the capital said they were disgruntled with Jammeh. “How can I be fine when I have been here since 4am and I’m hungry?” asked a soldier on the airport road. In his inauguration speech, Barrow gave the military assurances that he would pay them well.
The Ecowas force had been ready to take action. Its leader, Colonel Abdou Ndiaye of Senegal, said his troops had been well received by the Gambian population and had met no resistance from the country’s military.
“When we have orders we’ll either go forward or withdraw,” he said. “We may have a new mandate, we don’t know. The first one was to make sure that the newly elected president takes over in a peaceful environment. I’m not God, I cannot say what is going to happen.”
The foreign minister of Nigeria, one of the nations contributing forces, as well as fighter jets and a warship, said that while 7,000 west African troops were poised outside Banjul, “they’re not going to have to attack”.
Overnight Jammeh sacked what was left of his cabinet and said he would oversee all ministries himself.
The UN refugee agency warned that the political instability, which it said had driven 45,000 people, mainly children, into Senegal, could send more Gambians abroad. “The next few days will be critical and more people may leave the country if the current situation is not resolved peacefully soon,” the UNHCR said in a statement.
A UK resident, Monica Njie, was arrested after taking a photograph and held by the intelligence services for two days before being released. “I’d like to see him behind bars. If he’s killed, he won’t have to suffer what everyone else has suffered,” she said. “The system is so biased, there is injustice everywhere, human rights in the Gambia is one of the worst.”