Gambia’s president-elect has been sworn into office in neighbouring Senegal as the country’s resident dictator, Yayha Jammeh, was warned he could be toppled from power within hours after refusing to step down.
Adama Barrow was inaugurated Thursday in a hastily arranged ceremony at Gambia’s embassy in Senegal. The small embassy room held about 40 people, including Senegal’s prime minister and the head of Gambia’s electoral commission.
A jumbo TV screen broadcast the swearing in ceremony to several hundred watching outside the embassy.
Also at the event were officials from West Africa’s regional bloc, ECOWAS, which is threatening to invade Gambia to force Mr Jammeh to step down.
Mr Barrow, a former estate agent who once worked as a security guard at an Argos store in London, was expected to take his presidential oaths at the Gambian embassy in Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal.
Mr Barrow has been in Dakar ever since last week, amid fears that if he remained in Gambia, Mr Jammeh might try to have him killed or thrown in jail.
He was supposed to have a grand swearing-in ceremony in front of thousands of cheering supporters at a stadium in the Gambian, capital, Banjul, but that was ruled out to avoid the risk of bloodshed.
A detachment of Senegalese troops, with a mandate from the regional ECOWAS power bloc, has massed on the border of Gambia, with orders to topple Mr Jammeh by force if he does not step down. A deadline for him to do so came and went at midnight on Wednesday, when his term of office officially expired.
Sources close to Mr Barrow said that after being officially declared head of state, he would give Mr Jammeh one final warning to step down peacefully. After that, he would be a legitimate target for attack by the Senegalese troops, who could reach Banjul within two hours.
“It is absurd,” Mr Barrow’s spokesman, Halifa Sallah, said in a press conference on Wednesday. “The clear position is that the president-elect should assume office on the 19th.”
About 1,000 British holidaymakers were evacuated from Gambia on Wednesday night, as West African troops gathered on the border. The Britons, most on beach holidays with tour operator Thomas Cook, were among thousands of Western tourists flown out in emergency flights from the capital, Banjul.
On Thursday the streets of Banjul were deserted and shops shut, as fears grew that the political deadlock could end in violence.
Security forces were thin on the ground, though, and many police check points were deserted. When The Telegraph took a brief tour in a taxi around down, the few soldiers on duty at street corners seemed nervous and suspicious.
Some of Mr Barrow’s supporters said they were still planning to head to into Banjul this afternoon to hold parties when his inauguration ceremony began.
However, Mustapha Cham, a regional organiser from outside of Banjul, told The Telegraph that they were awaiting orders from his party hierarchy.
“We have buses and transport outside of Banjul ready to bring our supporters in, but right now we are telling them to stay in their homes.”
Mr Jammeh, who has ruled Gambia with an iron first for 22 years, has been under mounting international pressure to step down ever since December, when he lost elections to Mr Barrow.
Having initially conceded defeat he then reneged, claiming there had been fraud, in what was widely condemned as a brazen attempt to cling to power.
Regional mediators made last ditch-attempts to persuade him to stop down, with the President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, visiting Mr Jammeh at State House in Banjul late on Wednesday night.
Mr Jammeh’s vice president joined other members of his senior team who have abandoned him in recent weeks and days. Isatou Njie Saidy, who has been in the role since 1997, had reportedly quit by Thursday morning. Abubakar Senghore, Gambia’s minister for higher education, has also quit, sources told Reuters.
However, so far Mr Jammeh has resisted all inducements to get him to step down, which have included offers of asylum in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Morocco, among others.
The Senegalese troops poised at the border are part of an ECOWAS force also including Nigerian and Ghanaian troops, as well Nigerian air support.
Mr Jammeh can count only on his presidential guard, which runs to no more than a few hundred troops at best, who would be unlikely to be any match for any invasion force.