Gambia’s defeated leader Yahya Jammeh and his family headed into political exile Saturday night, ending a 22-year reign of fear and a post-election political standoff that threatened to provoke a regional military intervention when he clung to power.
As he mounted the stairs to the plane, he turned to the crowd, kissed his Quran and waved one last time to supporters, including soldiers who cried at his departure.
The flight came almost 24 hours after Jammeh announced on state television he was ceding power to the newly inaugurated Adama Barrow, in response to mounting international pressure for him to step aside.
Though tens of thousands of Gambians had fled the country during his rule, Jammeh supporters flocked to the airport to see him walk the red carpet to his plane. Women shouted: “Don’t go! Don’t go!”
Jammeh landed in Guinea an hour later, though the country might not be his final destination.
Barrow won the December elections, but Jammeh contested the results as calls grew for him to be prosecuted for alleged abuses during his time in power. A regional force had been poised to force out Jammeh if last-ditch diplomatic efforts failed to persuade him to leave.
The situation became so tense that Barrow had to be inaugurated in neighbouring Senegal at the Gambian Embassy. He said Saturday he would return to Gambia once it is “clear” and a security sweep is completed.
“What is fundamental here is he will live in a foreign country as of now,” Barrow told The Associated Press.
Shortly after Jammeh’s departure, the United Nations, African Union and the West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, issued a declaration saying that any country offering him and his family “African hospitality” should not be punished and that he should be free to return to Gambia in the future.
The joint statement did not include promises of amnesty but said the world and regional bodies “commit to work with the government of the Gambia to prevent the seizure of assets and properties lawfully belonging to former President Jammeh or his family and those of his Cabinet members, government officials and party supporters.”
Jammeh, who seized power in a coup in 1994, once vowed to rule for a billion years. He represented one of a dwindling number of West African leaders staying in office without apparent limit. The success in getting him to leave peacefully may help the vast region move toward more stable transfers of power.
His departure has brought an end to the political crisis in this impoverished nation of 1.9 million, which promotes itself to overseas tourists as “the Smiling Coast of Africa” while being a major source of migrants heading north toward Europe.