, Banjul, Gambia, Jan 21 – Gambians on Saturday anxiously awaited the departure of ex-president Yahya Jammeh to a life in exile, possibly in Guinea, after a deal with west African leaders headed off a regional military intervention.
After marathon talks with Guinea’s leader Alpha Conde and Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Jammeh accepted to hand over power peacefully to The Gambia’s new President Adama Barrow, who is waiting in neighbouring Senegal for the strongman of 22 years to leave.
AFP journalists at Banjul airport saw a Mauritanian plane standing by on the runway. Top officials said it was preparing to take Jammeh to the Guinean capital Conakry — though by the early evening there was still no sign of the veteran leader.
“Yahya Jammeh prefers, for the moment, to come to Guinea, to stay in Conakry, before he decides, along with the Guinean authorities, where to move for good,” Guinean state minister Kiridi Bangoura said.
An official from regional bloc ECOWAS — which backed a threat of military intervention before Jammeh yielded and announced he would step down — said “one or two villas” had been prepared for him in Conakry.
The agreement that finally saw the strongman give in to pressure to step down “foresees the departure of Yahya Jammeh from The Gambia for an African country with guarantees for himself, his family and his relatives,” Abdel Aziz said on return to Nouakchott in remarks quoted by the official AMI news agency.
Activists will be keen to see Jammeh — who controlled certain sections of the security forces — refused amnesty for crimes committed during his tenure, which was rife with rights abuses.
Diplomats had also mentioned Morocco, Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania as possible places of exile for Jammeh.
– Cautious optimism –
Jammeh’s actions will be carefully monitored as he has previously agreed to step down after recognising Barrow as winner of the December 1 elections — before completely reversing his position.
“I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation with infinite gratitude to all Gambians,” Jammeh said on state television early Saturday.
“My decision today was not dictated by anything else than the supreme interest of you, the Gambian people and our dear country,” he added.
After a calm night in Banjul, many only heard the news on waking, and greeted his declaration with a cautious optimism, aware of the leader’s mercurial nature.
“God has heard our prayers!” said Sheikh Sham, a 34-year-old metalworker from the suburb of Kanifing west of Banjul.
Mohamed Jallow, 16, said he was angry the president had allowed the political crisis to deteriorate to the point that tourists were forced into unplanned evacuations, potentially devastating an economy reliant on them for a huge chunk of its gross domestic product.
“I have never known another president. We are happy that he’s going but he had to spoil everything before he went,” he told AFP while gesturing at an empty beach.
Jammeh’s refusal to leave triggered a major political crisis, with the international community putting huge pressure on him and troops from five African nations gathering on The Gambia’s borders.
Senegalese troops remained in place at the border town of Karang, an AFP journalist at the scene said, poised to intervene if Jammeh goes back on his word.
A Banjul-based diplomatic source warned Friday that 51-year-old Jammeh could “quite easily” change his mind again.
Jammeh now has a three-day grace period with foreign troops on standby until he definitively quits the country, the source said.
In a further development, army chief Ousman Badjie, a former Jammeh loyalist, had on Friday pledged allegiance to Barrow along with other top defence and security chiefs, a government source said.
“We are just waiting for him to go. One man’s life is not worth a million lives. Even if I had to die myself myself, I would, so the others could enjoy,” said a soldier manning a checkpoint near the airport.
– Political prisoners released –
The Barrow government must now address the most immediate crises left behind by Jammeh’s protracted refusal to go.
Isatou Touray, a top official in Barrow’s team, said the first priority would be to help the tens of thousands who have fled in recent weeks to return safely.
“We are now trying to request humanitarian support for them to return,” she told AFP on Saturday.
UN figures show around 45,000 Gambians have so far left because of the insecurity, more than three quarters of them children, mostly accompanied by women.
Some political prisoners were released overnight, she added, and will be welcomed home by their families later in the day.