The Gambia’s longtime leader, Yahya Jammeh, has ignored two more deadlines to quit, as he continued to argue over the terms under which he would cede power to his democratically elected successor, Adama Barrow.
As midday and 4pm deadlines to go passed on Friday, two regional leaders arrived in the capital, Banjul, in a last-ditch diplomatic effort to persuade him to step down.
A regional military force that crossed the border in support of Barrow was awaiting orders on Friday. Marcel Alain de Souza, chair of the west African union Ecowas, said troops would force Jammeh out if he refused to leave the country.
Vultures languidly spread their wings on the large grounds outside State House in Banjul, where the streets were deserted and the hospital evacuated. Inside, Mauritania’s president, Mohamed Abdul Aziz, and Guinea’s Alpha Condé, as well as the UN’s regional chief, Mohammed Ibn Chambas, were making a final attempt to persuade Jammeh to go without a fight.
The regional force was ready to take action. Its leader, Colonel Abdou Ndiaye, 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 told the Guardian. “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”.
The troops entered the Gambia on Thursday night, hours after Barrow was inaugurated as president in Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal.
Jammeh, who ruled the west African state for 22 years and tried to extend his tenure despite losing to Barrow, was still in State House and was attempting to make a last-minute deal to ease his way out, according to sources close to the government.
The country’s vice-president, who is believed to have resigned, was also seen at the talks. Earlier this week, Jammeh imposed a state of emergency in a final attempt to hang on to power.
Overnight he 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.”
Outside, General 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. Badjie’s allegiance appears to have shifted from Jammeh to Barrow in recent days. “Why should we fight for everything? I love my soldiers and I love the Gambian people,” he said.
Jammeh’s security forces have 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.