West African troops will oust the Gambian president if he does not step down when his term ends in January, the chair of the regional bloc has said.
Marcel de Souza, the head of the Ecowas commission, said that “if he loves his people”, Yahya Jammeh would negotiate a peaceful exit, but if not, Senegal would lead the charge to remove him, according to Radio France Internationale.
After 22 years in power, Jammeh lost the presidential election in the Gambia this month to Adama Barrow, a former estate agent, but after initially accepting the result, he reversed his position and is planning to challenge it in the courts.
The Ecowas threat follows a defiant television appearance by Jammeh on Tuesday in which he railed against the UN, the US, the Commonwealth and the EU, and dared Ecowas to intervene.
“They said in fact we should not go to the court,” Jammeh said. “Irrespective of the court decision, they will enforce the 1 December election result. Let them enforce it today and see. What are they waiting for?”
De Souza, speaking on a trip to Mali, said forces were on standby. “If he is not going, we have standby forces already alerted and these standby forces have to be able to intervene to restore the people’s wish,” he was quoted as saying.
“Senegal has been selected by its peers to lead the operations, but we do not wish to start a conflict. If he loves his people, he has to be able to negotiate an exit door calmly. If it doesn’t happen, the most radical means will be used.”
Barrow said in a statement that he “does not wish to preside over a torn and tattered country and a divided warring people” and said that “all Gambians should leave matters with the president-elect and his team”.
He made it clear that Jammeh had to go before 19 January, but held out an olive branch to the long-time leader, saying “justice in a transitional administration must be tempered with mercy to avoid a cycle of revenge in a country where governments may come and go”.
He said he had “no intention to preside over a country where there will be revenge for past injustices”.
An Ecowas delegation to the Gambia led by the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, met Jammeh last week but failed to make him change his mind.
“They said: ‘Leave the country and take a break,’” Jammeh said. “Who are they to tell me to leave my country? [They think] if I stay around I may interfere with the democratisation process. I will not be intimidated by any power in this world. I want to make sure that justice is done, I am a man of peace, but I cannot also be a coward. My rights cannot be violated and intimidated to a point where I succumb to blackmail.”
He added: “I’m a man of peace but that doesn’t also mean I will not defend myself and defend my country courageously, patriotically, and win; emerge victorious. Nobody can deprive me of that victory, except the almighty Allah.”
Despite this, the spokesman for Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, who was chosen as the chief mediator, said negotiations had not been abandoned. “Mediation is still on the cards. It’s when it’s exhausted that we can consider that [military action],” Femi Adesina said.
The Gambia’s supreme court is set to hear Jammeh’s challenge on 10 January, but at the moment it has only a chief justice, a Nigerian, and no sitting judges, after the president sacked two for commuting death sentences last year. Should Jammeh appoint new ones, as he is reportedly trying to do, it would be “tantamount to one being a judge in his own cause”, according to the Gambian Bar Association.
Five of the six people thought to have been offered positions as judges are Nigerian, but Buhari’s spokesman said Nigeria’s government would not try to dissuade them from taking up the positions.
“That wouldn’t happen under a Buhari administration,” he said, adding that he would “never put pressure on the judiciary of another country”.
Barrow has said he will be sworn in as president of the Gambia irrespective of Jammeh’s position, and all west African heads of state are planning to attend.