The consensus among the European tourists interviewed by the international press at Banjul airport last week was that their evacuation from Gambia was an overreaction. ‘We just think it’s overkill,’ a man in holiday clothes said confidently. ‘Nothing will actually happen, Mr Jammeh will go, he’s using it as a bargaining tool, and it will be done peacefully.’ He shrugged. A woman with sunburnt skin widened her eyes. ‘In the hotel, everything was OK,’ she said. It was only on the transfer to the airport that they had seen people were leaving.
During the first weeks of January, as the outgoing president, Yahya Jammeh, refused to relinquish office, tens of thousands of Gambians left the country, bracing themselves for conflict. Regional troops gathered at the border.
The scenes of British tourists were reminiscent of summer news segments about bank holiday airport delays. Insouciance is harder if you are travelling in the opposite direction. Gambia is one of the top five countries of origin of migrants arriving by boat on the Italian coast. Asylum applications from people leaving Jammeh’s Gambia have increased hugely in recent years, but as most do not fit the criteria set out by the EU’s ‘hotspot’ system, more than two-thirds of applicants are rejected and told to buy plane tickets home within a week.
The British tourists at Banjul airport were catching special flights laid on to carry them back to the UK. (British newspapers have been oddly obsessed with the fact that the incoming Gambian president, Adama Barrow, once worked as a security guard at Argos on the Holloway Road while studying in London.) The contrast between the ease with which European citizens were whisked away from danger before it had even materialised, and the tribulations of Gambians trying to flee Jammeh’s regime, speaks to gross international inequalities of mobility and wealth, 52 years since Gambia won independence from the British Empire.
Jammeh, Gambia’s second president, took power in a coup in 1994. His regime was autocratic and repressive. But when he lost the election in December, he made a televised phone call Barrow to concede, wishing his successor luck and joking about his plans to take up farming. He later tried to annul the election, took the matter to court and finally declared a state of emergency. His support grew thinner. Thousands of people left Gambia for Senegal. Barrow was inaugurated at the Gambian embassy in Dakar. On Saturday, Jammeh finally agreed to cede power and to leave the country.
A variety of regional pressure was applied to Jammeh to force him out. Activist groups that have been organising against third-termism in Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso came together in December to condemn Jammeh’s change of heart. Members of Y'en a Marre (Senegal), Balai Citoyen (Burkina Faso), Filimbi and LUCHA (DRC) released a video with spokespeople from Jeune & Fort (Cameroon), Iyina (Chad), Wake Up (Madagascar) and the Gambian rapper Killa Ace, calling on Jammeh to leave. In December, the #GambiaHasDecided movement reinforced the message that it was the public, not Jammeh, who were the protagonists in the story. (The police started to arrest people wearing #GambiaHasDecided T-shirts.)
But the regional pressure also came from more established institutions such as ECOWAS and the African Union, which condemned Jammeh and warned him that their troops would intervene if he did not leave. His bloodless departure has been a huge success for them, cited as evidence of their commitment to democracy.
For several tense weeks, however, it wasn’t clear how he would go. At last, Alpha Condé, the Guinean president, was sent in to mediate. Jammeh counts Condé, along with Robert Mugabe, as one of his close allies. Condé, a veteran oppositionist under Lansana Conté’s regime, was elected in 2010, and hailed as ushering in a new democratic era in Guinea. He won a second term in 2015. At a press conference in May 2016, he said he did not want to wade into the debate about the limitation of presidential mandates. ‘No one will tell me what to do, except the Guinean public,’ he said.
In December, Condé spoke about the situation in Gambia. ‘Everyone knows I have excellent relations with President Yahya Jammeh,’ he said on TV. ‘When someone loses power, we have to reassure them. That is to say, that we won’t pursue them, or their supporters or their family. Unless we give guarantees to a head of state who is on their way out, they are scared there will be a witch hunt.’ Condé hoped it would be possible to avoid military intervention, and come to a solution through dialogue.
Condé stood next to Jammeh as the Gambian president made a final address at the weekend before leaving for exile. Jammeh thanked his ‘true friend’. The terms of the reassurances Jammeh received, and whether or not he has been granted immunity from the body he called the ‘International Caucasian Court’, are as yet unclear. Mai Ahmad Fatty, a special adviser to Barrow, claimed on Monday that Jammeh had transferred more than £9 million from the state bank account over the last few weeks and that a cargo plane had already moved many of his possessions, including luxury vehicles, out of the country.
Condé and Jammeh flew to Conakry on Condé’s private plane. Hadja Nantou Chérif, the national co-ordinator of Condé’s party, the RPG arc-en-ciel, congratulated the president on his diplomatic successes in Gambia in the name of peace and democracy. ‘Bravo,’ someone shouted from the audience. Switching between French and Malinké, Chérif addressed party activists: ‘We are relying on you,’ she said. ‘We must demonstrate to the world that that Professor Alpha Condé has the support of the people. Journalists take note … it is them, the people, who are going to ask him to stand for a third term.’ Applause and music broke out.