Gambia’s leader Yahya Jammeh is stepping down under pressure from West African armies which entered the country this week following his refusal to concede an election defeat to President Adama Barrow.
Jammeh’s announcement in an overnight broadcast on state television appears to end a political impasse and close a reign that began in 1994 when he seized power in a coup.
He had little choice but to step down after some 7000 soldiers from Nigeria and Senegal entered Gambia on Thursday backed by tanks and warplanes. They were poised to move into the capital as Jammeh’s army provided no resistance.
Jammeh’s authoritarian government established a reputation for torturing and killing perceived opponents to stifle dissent and his departure will likely be welcomed by democracy advocates and viewed as a triumph for African diplomacy.
“I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation,” Jammeh, dressed in a white robe and looking tired, said.
“All those who have supported me or were against me in this period, I implore them to put the supreme interest of our nation the Gambia above all partisan interest and endeavour to work together as one nation,” he added.
Jammeh made no mention of whether he would go into exile but said he was leaving power in the national interest and was grateful there was no bloodshed during the political stalemate.
His announcement was delayed by negotiations with the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania over where he would live and whether he could be offered amnesty for alleged crimes committed during his years in power, said sources close to talks. They said the outcome of the talks remained uncertain.
Shops in central Banjul were shut and the streets quiet on Saturday, with a dozen people gathered outside State House.
Jammeh’s defeat in December sparked celebrations on the streets of Banjul but, after initially conceding defeat, he backtracked and said he would challenge the result in court.
In a last bid to cling to power this week, he declared a state of emergency, dissolved the cabinet and the National Assembly extended his term for three months. More than half the government resigned and 45,000 people fled to Senegal.
Barrow, 51, is a soft-spoken man who worked as a property developer and led an opposition coalition few thought would win.
He was sworn in at the Gambian embassy in Senegal on Thursday and immediately called for international support.
“The rule of fear has been banished from Gambia for good,” Barrow told a crowd at a Dakar hotel on Friday, once it became clear a deal had been struck for Jammeh to relinquish power.