Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari was leading a regional delegation to Gambia in a last-ditch attempt Friday to persuade its longtime leader to step down and allow his rival’s inauguration next week, while fears grow that the impasse could turn violent.
Meanwhile, the African Union announced it will cease to recognize President Yahya Jammeh as Gambia’s legitimate leader as of Jan. 19, when his mandate expires. The decision by the AU’s Peace and Security Council warns Jammeh of serious consequences if his actions lead to the “loss of innocent lives” and calls on Gambia’s security forces to exercise restraint.
As the international community looks for a peaceful way out of the crisis, President Buhari has been authorised to offer Jammeh asylum, if necessary, during Friday’s visit.
But the West African regional bloc also has a military force on standby to intervene if Jammeh does not step down.
Jammeh at first accepted his Dec. 1 election loss, even making a telephone call to concede on national television, but then changed his mind and declared that “only Allah” can deny him victory. His party is now contesting the results in court.
President-elect Adama Barrow is renewing his offer to Jammeh for direct discussions on the crisis, telling the BBC that “I’ll be very willing to talk to him directly.”
The ruling party’s court challenge to the election results shows complications. Gambia’s Supreme Court, short of judges, has said it might not be able to consider the challenge until May, and Jammeh says Gambia should await its decision.
Jammeh took power in a coup in 1994 and is accused of gross rights violations including arbitrary detentions, torture and the killings of opponents in this tiny country of 1.9 million people that is nearly surrounded by Senegal.
Jammeh might be wary of a Nigerian promise of safe haven. Nigeria offered asylum to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor in 2003 to help end the civil war he started in 1989, but it was forced by international pressure to hand Taylor over in 2006 for trial for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Taylor was convicted in 2013 and is serving a 50-year sentence in a British prison.