West African troops were poised to intervene in Gambia on Thursday after President Yahya Jammeh’s mandate expired and overnight talks to convince him to stand down failed.
Senegal has deployed hundreds of soldiers to its shared border with Gambia and Nigeria has pre-positioned war planes and helicopters after regional bloc ECOWAS said it would remove Jammeh if he did not hand over power to challenger Adama Barrow, who won an election in early December.
Gambia’s capital, Banjul, was quiet overnight and on Thursday morning. Shops and banks remained closed as military helicopters flew overhead and police trucks patrolled largely empty streets.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz led last ditch talks with Jammeh in Banjul on Wednesday before meeting Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Barrow in Dakar overnight.
Isatou Toure, a senior Barrow aide, said the mediation effort failed to make any headway but Barrow would be sworn in at some stage on Thursday.
It was unclear what Jammeh’s next move would be. In power since leading a coup in 1994, he now faces almost total diplomatic isolation and a government that has all but collapsed from defections.
In the most senior loss yet, Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy, who has been in the role since 1997, quit on Wednesday, a government source and a family member told Reuters.
Gambia’s long, sandy beaches have made it a prime destination for European tourists but Jammeh has also earned a reputation for rights abuses and stifling dissent.
Both ECOWAS and the African Union have said they will recognise Barrow as president from Thursday.
Toure said the inauguration would definitely go ahead but it was not clear where it would take place as Barrow was in Senegal and the organising committee is in Gambia.
Plans to hold the ceremony at the national stadium in Banjul have been dropped but two diplomats said they expected Barrow to be sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Senegal.
TROOPS ON STANDBY
Senegal’s army said on Wednesday that it would be ready to cross into its smaller neighbour, which it surrounds, at any point after midnight. Nigeria has deployed aircraft to Dakar and a navy ship to the region. Ghana has also pledged troops.
A spokesman for Nigeria’s president told the BBC that troops would only intervene on the request of Barrow once he had been sworn in.
“What the Senegalese said about the midnight deadline was to put pressure on Jammeh. It was a show of muscle,” a diplomat in the region told Reuters.
The United Nations said at least 26,000 people fearing unrest have fled to Senegal and tour operators have sent charter jets to fly hundreds of European holiday makers out of the country.
Jammeh, who once vowed to rule for “a billion years”, has so far ignored calls by world powers and regional leaders to step aside and avert a conflict.
He says the electoral commission was under the influence of “foreign forces”, and has challenged the result in the Supreme Court – which currently lacks the judges necessary to preside over it.
Gambians celebrated in the streets when Jammeh unexpectedly conceded to Barrow, a real estate developer who once worked as a security guard at an Argos store in London. But a week later, the president changed his mind and security forces have cracked down on critics.
It was the latest in a long line of eccentricities from a leader who had said only Allah can remove him from office, claimed to have a herbal cure for AIDS that only works on Thursdays and threatened to slit the throats of homosexuals.