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Gambians flee to Senegal as political crisis heightens

Zipporah Nyambura | Emmanuelle Landais
January 18, 2017

Thousands of Gambians have fled to the country fearing a possible outbreak of voilence as President Yahya Jammeh refuses to leave power.The Gambia’s parliament on Wednesday voted to extend Jammeh's term by three months.

Gambia Wahlen in Serekunda
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Longari

Desperate Gambians mainly women, children and the elderly flocked in vehicles to neibouring and Guinea-Bissau which borders The Gambia in the west. Among those fleeing were a number of Jammeh's former government ministers, who resigned this week President-elect Adama Barrow is still in Senegal where he fled early this month fearing for his life ahead of his inauguration on Thursday  19th.  

Speaking to DW, a Gambian man who did not want to disclose his identity  said, "everybody knows the threats in the Gambia now, I don’t want to explain what I have experienced before in my country so knowing that shutting (the border) may be is imminent I think I have to leave and come over here for safety." Another found herself facing double tragedy, "I am a refugee from Sierra Leone I came to Gambia 13 years ago, but now the town is not safe and citizens are running. I cannot sit there because I have kids so I decide I come here. Right now I slept outside."

Helene Caux, spokesperson for the UN Refugee told DW they had not registed any asylum requests, but were getting ''ready to help the Senegalese authorities should there be more influxes.'' 

On Wednesday, President Jammeh announced a state of emergency saying it was necessary due to interference of foreign powers in the West African country's December 1 election. UK and Netherlands have reacted by calling on their citizens to leave the country. Some 1,000 British tourists are expected to leave on special flights on Wednesday alone. DW correspondent Adrian Kriesch in Banjul said several tourists were leaving, ''even in the hotel where am staying, it was completly full  yesterday, but today it is almost empty,'' he said.  

Empty streets

Gambia Markt in Banjul
Gambians fearing for war stock up on food and suppliesImage: Reuters/A. Sotunde

Business  came  to a standstill   on Wednesday save for a few shops  in districts close to the capital  Banjul where locals flocked to stock up food and supplies. Roads remained deserted with street hawkers notably absent. The number of Gambians fleeing the country is expected to increase in the next days with no clear indication of resolving the current standoff. Colonel Abdou Ndiaye, a spokesman for the Senegal army, told Reuters news agency that Senegal's forces were at the Gambian border and would enter at midnight if Jammeh refuses to leave power.

Parliament resolution
The Gambia's national assembly on Wednesday passed a resolution to allow President Yahya Jammeh, stay in office for three months from Wednesday when he was due to leave power. The decision was announced on Gambia’s state television, fuelling more confusion to a country that has the last one month been plagued by tension and political uncertainty. It is however unclear if the decision by the National Assembly resolution almost certainly gives the government authority to prevent Barrow’s inauguration on Thursday. Barrow in Senegal could in theory, be sworn in as a president at the Gambian embassy in that country, which is technically on Gambian soil. Although Barrow has maintained his inauguration will be carried out on Gambian soil.

Adama Barrow Präsident von Gambia
President elect Adama Barrow has insisted his inauguration will go ahead on the Gambian soil on ThursdayImage: Getty Images/AFP

Regional Intervention
Leaders of the West African bloc ECOWAS have threatened sanctions or military force to make Jammeh hand over power to opposition leader Adama Barrow who won the election. According to the French news aganecy, AFP, there was heavy military presence in Banjul after the announcement. Nigeria confirmed on Wednesday that indeed one of its warships is heading towards The Gambia, but calls it a "flag-showing and West Africa training" exercise as the tiny West African nation faces a possible regional military intervention.  Nigerian Navy spokesman Capt. Dahun Jahun responded to local media reports that the warship was a show of force in an effort to get Jammeh to step down.

Long rule

President Yahya Jammeh took over power 22 years ago. His rule is mostly seen as authoritarian and has often handeled members of the opposition with a strong hand. Jammeh lost an election in December to opposition leader Adama Barrow. His term ends on 18th this month, but the veteran leader has maintains he will not step down before a court hears his election challenge. The African Union has said it will no longer recognize Jammeh's authority after his term ends.

Gambia, a country of 1.9 million people, is estimated to have just 900 troops.