NAIROBI — After weeks of negotiations and facing the threat of a regional military intervention, Gambia’s defeated president agreed to step down on Saturday morning.
Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the tiny West African country for 23 years and lost in an election last month, gave a brief speech on state television announcing that he would finally step down.
“I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of this great nation,” he said.
Jammeh will be replaced by Adama Barrow, the 51-year-old former security guard and real estate agent who defeated the longtime ruler in a shocking election that brought Gambia to the brink of a political crisis. At times, it looked like Jammeh intended to remain in power by force. But as members of his administration and security forces resigned, and West African troops amassed at Gambia’s borders, he was given little choice but to step down.
On Friday night, Barrow declared that “the rule of fear” in Gambia had ended.
There were no details of the deal that Jammeh had reached with foreign negotiators, including the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania, who spent hours at the State House, or presidential residence, on Friday trying to persuade Jammeh to leave.
He at one point asked for amnesty for any crimes that he had committed while in power — a request that was rejected, according to Marcel Alain de Souza, chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
As negotiations proceeded in recent days, Jammeh also said he wanted to remain in Gambia after leaving power, de Souza said. But it seemed increasingly likely that Jammeh — following the example of deposed African leaders such as Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Central African Republic’s François Bozizé — would spend his retirement in exile.
He had been offered asylum in Nigeria and Morocco, but as of Saturday morning no announcement had been made about Jammeh’s destination. He has not yet departed the country.
Meanwhile, Barrow remains in neighboring Senegal, where he was inaugurated in a small ceremony on Thursday. The former security guard at a London department store has little political experience but is seen as a symbol of change and openness after more than two decades of Jammeh’s heavy-handed rule.
Gambia, a country of 2 million known for its pristine beaches and the large number of its citizens who have migrated to North Africa and Europe, has been in crisis since Jammeh lost the Dec. 1 presidential election. The U.N. refugee agency said Friday that 45,000 people, mainly children, have fled the country because of the latest political turmoil.
De Souza, chairman of ECOWAS, told the Associated Press on Friday that Guinean President Alpha Condé had gone to Gambia to ask Jammeh to leave office peacefully.
Jammeh “has the choice” of accepting Condé’s appeal and going into exile, de Souza said. If that fails, “we will bring him by force or by will. Our troops will advance on Banjul. Until the last minute, we still think there is a solution resulting from a dialogue.”
It remained unclear what Jammeh had hoped to gain by defying the mounting efforts to remove him.
The possibility of a sustained military conflict between Gambian and other West African troops had appeared unlikely, especially after the Gambian chief of defense forces, Ousman Badjie, said Friday that he would not support Jammeh.
“You cannot push us to war for an issue we can solve politically,” Badjie told the AP. “We don’t see any reason to fight.”
Jammeh on Friday fired the members of his cabinet who had not already resigned.
On Thursday, as Senegalese troops began crossing the border, many Gambians took to the streets to celebrate what appeared to be Jammeh’s last stand.
Although he led one of Africa’s smallest countries and economies, Jammeh had drawn outsize attention to himself by making bizarre and sometimes deeply troubling assertions. He had threatened to personally slit the throats of all gay men in his country. He had claimed he could cure AIDS with a mix of local herbs. And he had said he could rule Gambia for a billion years.
Those statements infuriated Gambians, many of whom lived in brutal poverty as Jammeh traveled around in a Rolls-Royce and bought real estate abroad.
Many Gambians saw their best fortunes in becoming migrants abroad.
By last October, more than 10,000 Gambians had arrived in Italy in 2016 after crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Gambia was the fifth-
largest source of refugees in all of Africa, despite having one of the smallest populations.
Saikou Jammeh in Banjul and William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.