Regional leaders held 11th-hour talks with Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh to persuade him to hand over power peacefully Friday, as troops from five African nations stood by ready to intervene failing a negotiated deal.
As evening fell over Gambia’s capital Banjul, Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Guinea’s Alpha Conde, who flew in around noon, remained locked in talks aimed at avoiding the need for force to resolve the crisis.
Jammeh, who refuses to recognise his defeat in presidential elections last month, would be offered asylum in the country of his choice, Conde advisor Kiridi Bangoura said earlier in the day.
“We still have every chance for a peaceful solution,” Aziz said before heading to The Gambia. “We have every interest in achieving that, we have enough conflicts in Africa going on without adding another.”
The pair arrived after a previously announced noon (1200 GMT) deadline for military intervention by foreign troops, which was extended de facto with no new time set.
Jammeh has rejected President Adama Barrow’s December 1 election win, despite significant pressure from regional powers and the UN, sparking a major crisis and sending Gambians and tourists — vital for the tiny country’s economy — fleeing.
– ‘An ultimatum’ –
Mauritania’s Aziz met Jammeh earlier this week as well as opposition leaders and Barrow but Conde advisor Bangoura said the longtime Gambian leader had yet to choose a place of exile.
Political sources cited Morocco and Guinea as possibilities, along with Mauritania and Qatar.
Barrow, who was sworn in at The Gambia’s embassy in Dakar on Thursday, remained in Senegal awaiting the outcome of the talks, with hopes of taking over from Jammeh as soon as his safety could be guaranteed.
He hailed a “victory of the Gambian nation” and demanded loyalty from his armed forces at his inauguration.
An imminent military operation, dubbed operation “Restore Democracy”, was suspended late Thursday to allow the final push to convince Jammeh to leave after 22 years at the helm of the former British colony.
“We have suspended operations and given him an ultimatum,” said Marcel Alain de Souza, head of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
– Shifting loyalties –
As white flags reportedly flew from Gambian army posts in the countryside, tectonic shifts were said to be underway among the military elite, pointing to a gradual acceptance of Barrow, even among units known for loyalty to Jammeh.
A diplomatic source said a faction had “switched sides” among the elite Republican Guards who assure Jammeh’s personal protection, following meetings among themselves at their Bakau barracks close to Banjul.
Gambia’s army chief Ousman Badjie said foreign troops would be welcomed “with a cup of tea” rather than gunfire if they intervene to ensure Jammeh stands down.
Badjie, a former Jammeh loyalist, said after attending Friday prayers at a mosque that “for our brothers who are coming, we are going to welcome them with a cup of tea and they place their weapons there”.
“Why should we fight?”, he added. “This is a political misunderstanding. There is no military solution to a political problem, let me tell you. We are not fools. I love my soldiers. I love the Gambian people. Nobody is going to be hurt here.”
Soldiers were told by Barrow in his inauguration speech they would be considered rebel elements if they remained armed on the streets.
– Cabinet dissolved –
Police chief Yankuba Sonko and customs boss Momat Cham also swore allegiance to Barrow, a government source who asked not to be identified told AFP.
After a string of ministerial resignations this week, Jammeh however appeared determined to stand his ground to the last, announcing he was dissolving the government and taking over.
“The President of the Republic of The Gambia Sheikh Professor Dr Alhaji Yahya Jammeh Babilimansa has dissolved his cabinet today,” a statement said. “The office of the President oversees all ministries.
On the ground, troops including “land, air and sea” forces had crossed into The Gambia, a Senegalese army officer told AFP, indicating that Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Mali were also involved.
Nigerian jets flew over The Gambia earlier.
The uncertainty continued to push Gambians to flee the country and the United Nations refugee agency said around 45,000 had fled so far, more than 75 percent of them children, largely accompanied by women.
“They are staying with family members, host families or in hotels. Some families are hosting up to 40 to 50 people and will soon need support as they may quickly run out of resources,” a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report said.