Nigeria, Senegalese, Malian and Ghanaian troops mobilised to The Gambia were yesterday approaching the capital, Banjul, to secure the city ahead of President Adama Barrow’s return.
Barrow is due to move into the Presidential Villa this week following Saturday night’s departure by Yahya Jammeh.
Witnesses told reporters that troops were seen in Barra, a town on the opposite bank of the Gambia River from Banjul, massing near a ferry terminal.
“I saw a lot of them. Too many to count,” said Pamadou Joof, 26, who operates a pirogue, a type of small boat. “They had vehicles and a lot of guns.”
A Reuters witness saw war planes flying over Banjul, which remained calm despite some concern over how the army, a pillar of Jammeh’s regime, would react to his departure.
Jammeh, who refused to accept defeat in a December election, flew out of Banjul late on Saturday en route to Equatorial Guinea to begin an asylum as the regional force was poised to remove him.
The regional operation was launched late on Thursday after Barrow was sworn in as president at Gambia’s embassy in neighbouring Senegal, but it was then halted to give Jammeh one last chance to leave peacefully.
There were speculations about whether Conde and Aziz had any agreement with Jammeh.
Senegalese Foreign Minister Mankeur Ndiaye told Reuters that while Jammeh had sought a promise of immunity from prosecution, no such guarantee was made.
“President Jammeh and his team concocted a declaration to be endorsed by (regional bloc) ECOWAS, the United Nations and the African Union that gave him every guarantee, essentially impunity,” Ndiaye said
“This declaration was signed by no one.”
Jammeh’s loss in a Dec. 1 poll and his initial acceptance of the result were celebrated across the tiny nation by Gambians grown weary of his increasingly authoritarian rule. But he reversed his position a week later, creating a stand-off with regional neighbours who demanded he step down.
“We will look for arms caches and detect mercenaries, so that we can restore calm,” said Marcel de Souza, president of the ECOWAS commission, explaining to reporters overnight the new phase of the military operation.
“Adama Barrow hopes to go back as quickly as possible.”
Rights groups accuse Jammeh of jailing, torturing and killing his political opponents while acquiring a vast fortune – including luxury cars and an estate in the United States – as most of his people remained impoverished.
The repression has forced thousands of Gambians to seek asylum abroad over the years. An additional 45,000 people fled to Senegal amid growing fears of unrest in the wake of last month’s election, according to the United Nations.
Hundreds of Gambians carrying sacks, suitcases and cooking pots began returning by ferry from Senegal’s Casamance region yesterday.
Hawa Jagne, 22, a cloth trader, hugged her sister Fama as she stepped off the boat.
“I’m so relieved to see her,” Jagne said. “Everyone is free. You can do whatever you want, because this is a democratic country. You can express yourself. No one can kill you.”
President Barrow has thanked President Muhammadu Buhari and other West African leaders for ensuring a successful transfer of power in his country.
He also promised Gambians he was ready to operate a transparent and all-inclusive administration.
He told reporters in Dakar, Senegal that it was about time the country was repositioned to achieve greatness and development.
“The time is now. There cannot be a better time because Gambians had waited for too long for this opportunity to come.
“This government would involve all well-meaning citizens, irrespective of political leanings and religion to build the country.
“We shall together do this in order to redeem the good image of the country and move it to greater height,” the President said.
Barrow said Gambians were very happy that the change they yearned for had finally come, adding that all hands must be on deck to develop the country.
He promised to unite all the warring factions for the good and development of the country.
“With unity of purpose a lot can be achieved within the space of little time that everybody can be proud of anytime anywhere.
“With everybody on board, Gambia can become one of the great countries of the world, going by its potential and human resources,” he said.
He called on Gambians to support the government, adding that he was ready and willing to deliver dividends of democracy to the good people.
“We shall embark on robust policies and programmes where everybody will have equal chance as that is key in democracy.
“We are going to redeem all items in our manifesto for the benefit of the people. Gambia is back and we are ready to move it forward.
“We are also going to encourage people, especially Nigerians, to invest in the country and create more employment.
“We will encourage them and other foreign investors to go into production.
“We do not want the idea of buying and selling because your life will depend on others. So, we will encourage people to go into production,” the President said.
He also assured the people of adequate security, promising to leave a good legacy.
Barrow expressed delight for the support extended to him during the trying time, adding that the people must remain dogged and resilient for the government to deliver dividends of democracy.
He specially appreciated the role played by President Muhammadu Buhari and ECOWAS and other international bodies that ensured that his mandate became a reality.
There was a breakdown of security in Banjul, the Gambian capital, yesterday leading to a massive looting of public property.
It was reported that some security chiefs who were supposed to maintain security of lives and properties were behind the looting.
“There is massive looting taking place at the State House,” a Gambian newspaper reported.
It said Jammeh’s exit created a gap which is expected to be filled with the arrival of ECOWAS troops in the capital.