Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, who led his country for 22 years but refused to accept his election defeat last month, has agreed to step down and go into exile, a senior advisor to new President Adama Barrow on Friday.
The news came as regional armies, who entered Gambian territory late on Thursday, were poised to remove Jammeh by force just hours after the army chief recognized Barrow as commander-in-chief.
West African leaders Alpha Conde of Guinea and Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz traveled to the capital Banjul on Friday to allow Jammeh one last chance to cede power peacefully.
“I can assure you that he has agreed to leave,” Mai Ahmad Fatty, head of Barrow’s transition team and now his special advisor, told Reuters in Senegal’s capital Dakar.
He could not say where Jammeh would go into exile.
Barrow, who won the Dec. 1 poll by a slim margin, was sworn into office at Gambia’s embassy in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on Thursday and immediately called for regional and international support.
West African militaries announced soon after that they had crossed into Gambia, which is almost completely surrounded by Senegal.
“The rule of fear has been banished from Gambia for good,” Barrow told a crowd gathered at a Dakar hotel on Friday. “To all of you forced by political circumstances to flee our country, you now have the liberty to return home.”
Gambia’s army chief General Ousman Badjie, who had been perhaps the last remaining pillar of support for Jammeh, said he would welcome, not fight, the regional force.
“We are going to welcome them with flowers and make them a cup of tea,” he told Reuters. “This is a political problem. It’s a misunderstanding. We are not going to fight Nigerian, Togolese or any military that comes.”
The military operation was halted late on Thursday to give mediation a chance. A midday deadline was extended on Friday as negotiations, which diplomats said were focusing on a deal to grant Jammeh immunity from prosecution, continued.
“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, then tried and hanged.
A senior official from regional bloc ECOWAS, under whose mandate the military operation was launched, said late on Thursday that there was no question that Jammeh would be allowed to remain in Gambia, even if he agreed to step down.