President Muhammadu Buhari and other West African leaders, may have tactically taken Gambia’s president-elect, Adama Barrow into safety after a botched attempt to persuade President Yahya Jammeh to voluntarily cede power after he lost the 1 December election.
Jammeh’s tenure ends 19 January, and both ECOWAS and the AU have said he would cease to be the leader of West Africa’s smallest country by 20 January.
President Buhari flew out of Banjul with Barrow on Friday, en route to Mali, for what was called crisis talks in hopes of ending the nation’s political impasse.
Thousands of Gambians themselves are leaving the country over fears of a possible military intervention to resolve the impasse.
The Nigerian President had led a three-nation delegation to Banjul earlier in the day, which his foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, admitted had not succeeded in getting long time Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to step down.
Jammeh has made it clear that he will not stand aside until the country’s Supreme Court decides on his legal challenge seeking to annul the results of last month’s polls, which he initially conceded losing.
The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-nation bloc, has repeatedly called on Jammeh to respect the result of the vote that delivered Barrow to victory, and step down after 22 years in power.
“The ECOWAS team has decided to depart Banjul tonight in the company of president-elect Barrow headed for Bamako, Mali,” Nigeria’s foreign minister Onyeama told journalists.
Ghana’s former president John Mahama, Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Buhari have spent the last month attempting to cajole Jammeh into ceding the presidency.
Onyeama expressed West Africa’s “determination to find a peaceful solution that accords with the constitution of The Gambia and also reflects the will of the Gambian people,” and said this was best served by Barrow meeting representatives from all ECOWAS member nations.
West African heads of state are gathered in Bamako for the Africa-France summit which resumes Saturday.
The African Union said there would be “serious consequences” for Jammeh, without elaborating, if violence or disorder were to break out as a result of the deadlock.
And Mohamed Ibn Chambas, head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, said Friday that ECOWAS would ask the security council to approve the deployment of troops to The Gambia if Jammeh refuses to cede power.
There are just five days left of Jammeh’s five-year term, but he warned the international community on Tuesday that “undue external interference” was unnecessary.
The Supreme Court is unlikely to sit and hear his legal challenge before May, ratcheting up tensions with Barrow, whose inauguration is due Thursday.
Gambians flee across border
Meanwhile the prolonged political uncertainty and fear of unrest has pushed thousands of Gambians across the border into neighbouring Senegal and further afield to Guinea-Bissau.
Tibna Sambe Na Wana, the national coordinator for Guinea-Bissau’s refugee commission, said more than 1,000 Gambians had crossed into the country, where they do not require a visa, in recent days.
“It is clear that the total number is far higher than a thousand and rising daily,” Na Wana said.
Women, children and the elderly made up the greatest numbers, the official said, with more than 500 passing one border post near the town of Jegue in three days.
“They say they are scared of a military escalation,” Na Wana added.
In Senegal, the UN’s refugee agency said “several thousand people” had crossed into the southern Casamance region from The Gambia, especially children.
Senegal and The Gambia have deep ethnic and linguistic ties, and most families have relatives living across the border.
“Most arrivals in Senegal are Gambians and Senegalese who have been working or living in The Gambia,” said Liz Ahua, UNHCR’s representative for West Africa in Dakar, but added Africans from several other nations were also crossing.
A nation of fewer than two million people, The Gambia already accounts for the highest number of migrants per capita of any nationality crossing the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats to Italy.
The effects of the crisis were further scrutinised across the continent in Addis Ababa, where the African Union (AU) declared it would no longer recognise President Jammeh as head of state on January 19, regardless of the Supreme Court case.
Citing “the inviolable nature of the outcome of the presidential elections held on 1 December 2016 in The Gambia,” the AU called on Jammeh to respect the constitution and cede power to Barrow on that date.
Jammeh has said he wants to wait for the Supreme Court to sit and hear his case, but the Gambian Bar Association said Friday his term could not legally be extended except through a referendum altering the constitution.
The president has few allies and has faced almost universal condemnation for clinging to his post, though Nigerian House of Representatives said Thursday the country should consider offering him asylum.