January 21, 2017 / 4:14 AM / 2 years ago

Gambia's leader Jammeh says he will step down, ending political impasse

BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambia’s leader Yahya Jammeh said on Saturday he would step down from power in a statement made in the face of pressure from West African armies that entered his country to remove him after he refused to concede an election defeat to President Adama Barrow.

Gambia's President Al Hadji Yahya Jammeh attends the plenary session of the Africa-South America Summit on Margarita Island September 27, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Files

His decision ends a political impasse and will likely be welcomed by democracy advocates and viewed as a triumph for African diplomacy.

It also brings to a close a reign that began in 1994 when he seized power in a coup. Jammeh’s government established a reputation for torturing and killing perceived opponents to stifle dissent.

“I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation,” he said on state television, wearing a white robe and looking tired.

“All those who have supported me or were against me in this period, I implore them to put the supreme interest of our nation the Gambia above all partisan interest and endeavor to work together as one nation,” he said.

Jammeh made no mention of whether he would go into exile but said he was leaving power in the national interest after prayer and was proud to have served the Gambian people and grateful there was no bloodshed during the political impasse.

In practice, he had little choice but to step down. Around 7,000 soldiers from Nigeria and neighbouring Senegal entered Gambia late on Thursday backed by tanks and warplanes and were poised to swoop into the capital as his army provided no resistance.

Jammeh lost to Barrow in December sparking celebrations on the streets of Banjul but, after initially conceding defeat, he changed his mind and said he would challenge the result in court.

In a bid to cling to power, he declared a state of emergency on Monday, dissolved the cabinet and the National Assembly extended his term for three months. More than half its members had resigned and 45,000 people fled to Senegal as refugees.

‘RULE OF FEAR’ BANISHED

Barrow was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Senegal on Thursday and immediately called for international support.

“The rule of fear has been banished from Gambia for good,” Barrow told a crowd at a Dakar hotel on Friday, once it became clear a deal had been struck for Jammeh to relinquish power.

“To all of you forced by political circumstances to flee our country, you now have the liberty to return home,” he said. Barrow was also expected to return to the country.

The crisis was a test for regional bloc ECOWAS, not least because Jammeh had held office longer than any other current president in the grouping of states. The African Union and U.N. Security Council supported the military intervention.

Guinea’s President Alpha Conde and Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz traveled to the Banjul on Friday to allow Jammeh a last chance to cede power peacefully.

Gambia’s Atlantic beaches make it a holiday destination for Europeans. Tourism is a mainstay in the country of 1.8 million and the economy is otherwise reliant on peanut production and remittances from overseas.

The economy is expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2017, bouncing from a projected contraction of 4.0 percent last year, according to World Bank figures.

Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Shri Navaratnam

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