Gambia’s defeated leader, Yahya Jammeh, flew into exile Saturday night, ending 22 years of strong-arm rule and a political stalemate that brought the West African nation to the brink of a regional military intervention.
Jammeh made no statement as he departed the airport at Banjul with his family in an unmarked plane, landing several hours later in Equatorial Guinea. He was accompanied by Guinean President Alpha Conde, who had sought in recent days to negotiate an exit plan.
The departure of Jammeh, who seized power in a 1994 coup, ends weeks of tension that began when he refused to leave office following his surprise defeat in national elections on December 1. It also averts the threat of military action by a force of 7,000 troops from Senegal and Nigeria who entered Gambia on Thursday to confront Jammeh’s military loyalists.
Both the African Union and the U.N. Security Council supported the planned intervention.
The departure of Jammeh opens the way for the transfer of power to Adama Barrow, who won the presidency seven weeks ago. Barrow, who was sworn in Thursday at Gambia’s embassy in neighboring Senegal, is now expected to return home.
The U.S. welcomed the developments in Gambia. “The United States welcomes the on-going peaceful transition of power in The Gambia and congratulates President Adama Barrow on his inauguration. We applaud the commitment to democracy and the restraint shown by the Gambian people over the past weeks,” said acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
Earlier in the week, Jammeh declared a national state of emergency in a last-ditch effort to hold on to power. He dissolved his Cabinet while the national assembly extended his term of office by three months.
But by Friday, as pressure mounted, he was negotiating with the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania before agreeing to step down. Sources said the talks centered on where Jammeh would live and whether he would be granted amnesty for alleged crimes committed during his rule.
Barrow, a property developer, celebrated as it became clear on Friday that Jammeh’s departure was imminent.
“The rule of fear has been banished from Gambia for good,” Barrow said in Dakar as he prepared to return to his homeland.