Tourists scramble for flights out of Gambia as troops mass at border and defeated president clings to power

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 10:11pm

Tourists and Gambians have scrambled to leave the west African country after the Senegalese army said its forces would cross the border if long-time president Yahya Jammeh did not stand down.

Beijing, which resumed diplomatic ties with Gambia in March, urged calm as last-ditch efforts by the leaders of Mauritania and Senegal to persuade Jammeh to cede power peacefully in the wake of his election defeat appeared to have failed early on Thursday.

The dispute over the transfer of power has raised the prospect that troops from a regional force would carry out their threat to enter the country.

As tourists were evacuated amid scenes of chaos at Banjul airport, Col Abdou Ndiaye, a spokesman for the Senegalese army, said troops were at the Gambian border and would enter the country at midnight if the deadline for a transfer of power passed. “We are ready,” he said. “If no political solution is found, we will step in.”

Soldiers from Nigeria, Mali, Togo, Ghana and Senegal make up the regional force, but it is being headed by a Senegalese general and has the backing of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which has repeatedly called on Jammeh to stand down.

Gambia has been in a state of political uncertainty since Jammeh, who lost the December election to coalition leader Adama Barrow , said he would not step down. He has so far refused to cede power, using the courts and parliament to try to extend his 22-year rule.

In a last-ditch attempt to persuade Jammeh to accept a deal and leave the country, the president of Mauritania flew in, was met by the justice minister, one of the few members of Jammeh’s government who has not resigned and fled the country, and went straight to State House.

Jammeh’s official mandate ends at midnight on Wednesday, but members of the opposition remained hopeful that he would go peacefully, with Mauritanian president Mohamed Abdul Aziz, rather than face war.

“He’s been calling [Ecowas’s] bluff but I don’t think he wants to die,” said James Gomez, a senior member of the coalition that is poised to govern the country.

However Abdul Aziz later left the talks and did not take Jammeh with him.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged calm.

“We urge relevant parties to stay cool-headed, to attach importance to the interests of the people and country, to appropriately resolve the political crisis through dialogue and political consultation and to maintain peace and stability,” she told a daily news briefing.

China has a growing diplomatic and business presence in Africa and has been deeply involved in efforts to bring peace to South Sudan, for example.

China resumed diplomatic ties with Gambia in March. The country was previously a diplomatic ally of Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own. China views Taiwan as a wayward province, with no right to formal foreign ties.

Gambia’s army chief said on Wednesday that he would not order his men to fight other African troops if they enter Gambian territory. “We are not going to involve ourselves militarily. This is a political dispute,” said the chief of defence staff, Ousman Badjie.

“I am not going to involve my soldiers in a stupid fight. I love my men,” he added, stopping to pose for selfies with admirers, according to an Agence France-Presse report. “If they [Senegalese] come in, we are here like this,” Badjie said, making a hands up to surrender gesture.

On Tuesday Jammeh announced a national state of emergency, prompting the Foreign Office to change its travel advice and warn against all but essential travel to Gambia.

On Wednesday tourists were boarding buses from resorts across the country, as tour operators decided to evacuate their customers.

Thomas Cook said a programme of additional flights into Banjul airport would bring home 1,000 holidaymakers it had in the Gambia, followed by up to 2,500 more at the “earliest possible flight availability”.

Barrow, who is currently in Senegal, will return to the Gambia on Thursday to be sworn in as president regardless of whether or not Jammeh leaves. “Our future starts tomorrow,” he was quoted as saying in a tweet, adding that his supporters made history when they elected him in December.

But Gomez said Barrow’s swearing-in as president would not be held in the national stadium as planned, but at a secret location.

“We cannot risk bringing people to the stadium,” he said. “It’s not in our hands; it’s in Ecowas’s hands. They want us to follow the constitution, which states that the president’s term ends at midnight.”

In recent days fears of violence have prompted tens of thousands of people, many of them children, to flee the Gambia through its land borders. Neighbouring Senegal on Wednesday presented a draft resolution to the UN security council seeking support for Ecowas’s efforts to press Jammeh to step down.

British tourists planning on soaking up some winter sun learned on Wednesday morning that they would be evacuated after the country’s embattled president announced a national state of emergency.

“This never happened before,” said Robert Gwynne, a tourist from Swindon who has been coming to the Gambia for 11 years and who had to leave two days into his two-week holiday. “I don’t understand what’s going on. The government shouldn’t have let it go this far. This place is going to be dead. I feel sorry for everybody here. It’s going to take years for tourism to pick up again. I’ll make the effort, but only if I’m 110 per cent sure it’s safe.”

Additional reporting by Reuters