Gambia’s long-time president Yahya Jammeh lost the key support of the country’s military on Friday, as he faced mounting diplomatic and military pressure from regional leaders to cede power peacefully to the West African nation’s newly inaugurated president, Adama Barrow.
Witnesses said Mr. Jammeh, the country’s long-time incumbent since he took power by military coup in 1994, remained holed up in his heavily guarded estate. Meanwhile, the head of Gambia’s defense forces, General Ousman Badjie, said the army would not fight the encroaching 7,000 troop-strong West African military coalition, dubbed Operation Restore Democracy.
Mr. Barrow, who was elected president of the tiny nation of 2 million in December, was inaugurated in the Gambian Embassy in neighboring Senegal on Thursday for his own safety. Jammeh initially accepted the result of the election but has since reneged, leaving many anticipating conflict.
But a peaceful transition of power now looks increasingly likely since Mr. Badjie acknowledged Barrow's legitimacy as the nation’s new president and commander-in-chief.
Badjie told Reuters by telephone that he would welcome, not fight, the regional West African forces, ECOWAS.
"We are going to welcome them with flowers and make them a cup of tea," he said. "This is a political problem. It's a misunderstanding. We are not going to fight Nigerian, Togolese or any military that comes."
After his inauguration, Barrow immediately called for regional and international backup, which was enacted with the leaders from neighboring countries and United Nations officials flown into Gambia’s capital, Banjul, for last minute talks.
On Friday, President Alpha Conde of Guinea and Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz urged Jammeh to cede power peacefully. UN officials, including Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the UN Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, were also involved in the talks.
A deadline halting the military operation was extended past midday on Friday, with diplomats saying a deal to grant Jammeh immunity from prosecution was ongoing.
"There is a real possibility this could work. I don't think he is going the (Saddam) Hussein route," said a regional diplomat, referring to the Iraqi leader who was arrested in 2003 following an invasion, tried, and hanged.
Maggie Dwyer, an expert on West African armed forces at the University of Edinburgh, also indicated military confrontation was unlikely given it only had an estimated maximum 2,400 troops, and fewer than 1,000 paramilitary forces. The ECOWAS coalition, by comparison, is backed by tanks and warplanes.
"I think the Gambian military would know it's outnumbered," she told the Associated Press.
At a news conference in Nouakchott before leaving for Gambia, Mr. Abdel Aziz said he would "never understand" why Jammeh backed off from his initial decision to accept defeat and step down, according to Mauritanian state media.
He has continued to lose backers, with the African Union also no longer recognizing his legitimacy.
Despite the increased likelihood of a bloodless transition of power, many Gambian locals, along with Western tourists who are attracted by its tropical beaches, aren’t taking any chances.
Around 45,000 people have fled Gambia for Senegal, according to the Senegalese government and the UN refugee agency. About two-thirds are children accompanied by women, according to the United Nations.
Only about a few thousand international tourists are believed to still be in Gambia, and efforts to evacuate them are continuing.
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.