West African troops have crossed the border into the Gambia as part of regional efforts to support the new democratically-elected president in a showdown with his predecessor, Yahya Jammeh.
“We have entered Gambia,” Col Abdou Ndiaye, a spokesman for the Senegalese army, wrote in a text message to reporters on Thursday night, just hours after Adama Barrow was forced to hold his inauguration as president in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
The Nigerian military told reporters that it was also deploying troops to Gambia as part of a “standby” west African coalition force to enforce the result of the December election, which Barrow won.
Hours earlier, holding a Qur’an and looking solemn, Barrow was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, where he has spent the past few days, and delivered his inaugural speech as president.
“This is a day no Gambian will ever forget,” he told a crowd of officials and diplomats. “This is the first time since Gambia became independent in 1965 that Gambia has changed the government through the ballot box.”
Jammeh, who ruled the west African nation for 22 years and tried to extend his tenure despite losing to Barrow, is still in State House in the capital and is attempting to make a last-minute deal to ease his way out, according to sources close to the government. Earlier this week, he imposed a state of emergency in a final attempt to hang on to power.
Nevertheless, celebrations in Gambia began as soon as Barrow had made his speech, with drivers beeping their horns in elation and people leaning out of car windows, waving their arms, in scenes reminiscent of the outpouring of joy after the election result was announced, shortly before Jammeh rejected it.
Significantly, Barrow called on the UN to enforce his electoral win. “I hereby make a special appeal to ECOWAS, AU [African Union] and the UN, particularly the security council, to support the government and people of Gambia in enforcing their will, restore their sovereignty and constitutional legitimacy,” he said.
Soon after Barrow’s speech, the UN security council voted for a resolution that called “upon the countries in the region and the relevant regional organisation to cooperate with President Barrow in his efforts to realise the transition of power” – a statement that lent weight to Barrow but stopped short of explicitly sanctioning military intervention.
When the president of Mauritania arrived in the country on a final mediation mission on Wednesday night, Jammeh demanded that Barrow’s inauguration be delayed and that he be allowed to return to his farm in Gambia, according to diplomatic sources. The sources also said Jammeh asked that ECOWAS, the regional body that has been leading negotiations for the past month, be replaced as a mediator.
However, it is highly unlikely that Jammeh will be allowed any of these except a safe haven; one senior member of the coalition said last month that Jammeh had “bunkers and treasure” at the farm and would start an insurgency if he were allowed to go back.
Barrow offered an olive branch to the country’s military, which has changed its allegiance several times over the past month, with the chief of defence staff saying most recently that as Jammeh paid his salary, he answered to him.
“I call on all civilian and military personnel of the state to support my presidency, since it is built on a constitutional foundation,” Barrow said. “They are assured that they will not be subjected to any injustice or discrimination but will be provided with better working conditions and terms of service.”
Halifa Sallah, the spokesman of the coalition, said he expected Jammeh to change his defiant position when he saw that the military were no longer with him, which he thought would happen imminently.
“Once the international community recognises Barrow, Jammeh will realise that he does not have legitimacy, and governability is also an impossibility, so he may decide to leave,” Sallah said.
The Nigerian foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, who was involved in mediation efforts, said: “There’s a bottom line. There’s a new president. He has to leave power. ECOWAS is ready to take steps to ensure that the elected president is able to assume his mandate. The new president will have his say. He might not want necessarily to ride into Banjul on the tank of a foreign country.”
Earlier on Thursday, before the post-inauguration celebrations, an eery quiet descended on the country, as thousands of Gambians waited to see what would happen. Hiding in their homes, many spent the previous day stocking up on supplies and queuing at banks for cash.
Only a few tourists ventured out into the deserted streets and hundreds of visitors were flown home on Wednesday, amid chaotic scenes at the airport.
As well as the hard knock to the tourism industry, a vital source of revenue for Gambia, Barrow will have to deal with an unfolding humanitarian situation just over the border: 25,000 people, half of them children, have fled the country in recent days.
Not everyone was on their way out of the country, however. One of Africa’s most famous writers, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was in Gambia for the inaugural Mboka festival of arts and stayed despite the evacuations.
He said that events in the west African nation had a much wider resonance for the continent. “It’s very important for Africa. There is a sense that everyone is rooting for Gambia to go through this transition,” he said.
By: Ruth Maclean