The Gambia’s ex-leader Yahya Jammeh has flown out of the country he ruled for 22 years and into exile, bringing an end to a protracted political crisis following presidential elections last month.
The longtime ruler refused to step down after a December 1 vote in which opposition leader Adama Barrow was declared the winner, triggering weeks of tension as West African leaders threatened to use military force to oust him if he failed to step down.
Jammeh boarded a small, unmarked plane at an airport in the capital, Banjul, late on Saturday, alongside Guinea’s President Alpha Conde after two days of negotiations over a departure deal.
He landed in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, but set off again for Equatorial Guinea, where he will remain in exile, the president of the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), Marcel Alain de Souza, told journalists
“No legislative measures” would be taken that would infringe the “dignity, security, safety and rights” of Jammeh or his family, ECOWAS said in a joint declaration with the African Union and United Nations.
Jammeh could return to The Gambia when he pleased, the statement added, and property “lawfully” belonging to him would not be seized.
“The agreement essentially says there can be no prosecution against Jammeh, his family or his entourage; there will be no seizure of his assets, no witch-hunts, and he can be back to the country at any time, ” Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Dakar in neighbouring Senegal, said.
“It might sound like a good deal for Jammeh, but we have to bear in mind that this is a political document, not a legally binding one, so it still brings hopes for those wanting to prosecute Jammeh or those in the security services over alleged human rights violations.”
Human rights activists have repeatedly demanded that Jammeh be held accountable for alleged abuses, including torture and detention of opponents.
‘We are free’
Scenes of jubilation broke out almost immediately on streets near Banjul, after the news filtered out that Jammeh had gone.
“We are free now. We are no longer in prison,” Fatou Cham, 28, told AFP news agency.
“We do not have to watch our back before we express our opinions.”
Al Jazeera’s Haque said Jammeh’s departure marked a “historic moment” for people in The Gambia and West Africa who believe that there can be democracy in the region.
“This was done by the votes of young Gambians who took to the street, who cast their ballot box and really got Jammeh out of power despite him not wanting to let go,” our correspondent said.
“It was a peaceful protest that was done in Gambia and also on social media, and it was just too much for Jammeh to ignore.”
Barrow, who was sworn in as The Gambia’s new president at the country’s embassy in Senegal on Thursday, is expected to return home imminently.
Speaking to the Associated Press on Saturday, Barrow urged caution after an online petition called for Jammeh to be arrested, and not be granted asylum.
The new president, who had sought shelter in the neighbouring country, said he favours launching a “truth and reconciliation commission” to investigate possible crimes by Jammeh.
ECOWAS had pledged to remove Jammeh by force if he did not step down. The group assembled a multinational military force, including tanks, that rolled into The Gambia on Thursday.
The troops moved in after Barrow’s inauguration and a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council backing the new president and calling Jammeh to cede power.
Jammeh announced his intention to leave the country on Friday. “I have decided in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation,” he said.
At least 46,000 people had fled The Gambia for Senegal since the start of the crisis fearing unrest, according to the UN’s refugee agency.