(CNN) Gambia’s longtime leader, Yahya Jammeh, has announced he will step down as president after days of tense negotiations and the prospect of West African military intervention.
In a televised address on Saturday morning, Jammeh said it was his duty to “preserve at every instant” the lives of Gambians.
“I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation with infinite gratitude to all Gambians,”
“My decision today was not dictated by anything else than the supreme interest of you the Gambian people and our dear country,” Jammeh said in his speech, thanking Gambians for their support.
“At a time when we are witnessing trouble and fears in other parts of Africa and the world the peace and security of the Gambia is our collective heritage which we must jealously guard and defend,”
The longtime leader was facing a showdown with troops from neighboring Senegal who entered the small West African country less than 24 hours earlier to enforce the results of last month’s presidential election.
The UN Security Council had backed an effort by regional states to remove Jammeh as president.
Last-minute negotiations with the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania focused on encouraging Jammeh to cede power to new President Adama Barrow.
The Commission of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, gave Jammeh until noon Friday to step aside or face being forcibly removed.
“If at noon he doesn’t accept to leave Gambia, the troops will intervene militarily to remove him by force so we can install the new President with all his powers in accordance with the Gambian Constitution,” Marcel A. de Souza, the commission’s president, told Reuters.
Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 military coup, suffered a surprise election defeat in December to Barrow, who won 45% of the vote. Jammeh originally conceded the presidency but then announced his “total rejection of the election results.”
Barrow was sworn in Thursday in Senegal.
Around 45,000 people have reportedly arrived in Senegal from Gambia amid the turmoil, the UN refugee agency said Friday, citing the Senegalese government.
The United Nations called on “all stakeholders, within and outside the Gambia, to exercise restraint, respect the rule of law and ensure the peaceful transfer of power.”
Senegal, Ghana, Togo and Mali are among the West African countries contributing to the military effort, while the Nigerian air force said 200 of its troops would join forces from ECOWAS.
Talks to urge Jammeh to leave
Two West African leaders and a UN representative met on Friday with Jammeh to convince him to step down peacefully, an official on the longtime ruler’s team told CNN.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, special representative of the UN secretary-general and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, was a key figure in talks by regional leaders to convince Jammeh to leave, the official said.
The presidents of Guinea and Mauritania have been in Gambia since Friday as well, working to convince Jammeh to leave peacefully.
An African Union statement welcomed Barrow’s swearing-in as the legitimate president and expressed “the readiness of the AU to work closely with the new Gambian authorities to promote peace, security, stability and reconciliation in their country.”
The South African government also called upon Jammeh to step down peacefully.
Leader in waiting
Barrow has been waiting in Senegal — which surrounds Gambia — for the handover of power. In his first speech as leader, he hailed the “victory of the Gambian nation.”
“Our national flag will now fly high,” he said Thursday. “Violence is finished forever from the life of the Gambians. There is no loser in this election. We promise to unify our people. Today most Gambians are united in order to give Gambia a new start. Today, I am the President of all Gambians.”
He pledged to “respect the rule of law and fundamental freedoms” and promised “significant democratic reform.”
And he called on the country’s military to remain loyal: “I command all members of the armed forces to remain in their barracks. Those found wanting, or in possession of firearms, without my order, shall be considered rebels.”
But Maj. Gen. Ousman Badjie, defense chief of the Gambian armed forces, told CNN he now considered Barrow the commander in chief.
Save the Children warned of the danger of a humanitarian emergency as people fled their homes.
“These children are largely fleeing to parts of both Gambia and Senegal where public services such as health facilities and schools are already under a great deal of strain,” said Bonzi Mathurin, Save the Children’s Senegal director.
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