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New Gambia president inaugurated in Senegal

Babacar Dione and Robbie Corey-Boulet
Associated Press

Dakar, Senegal — A new Gambian president was sworn into office in neighboring Senegal on Thursday while Gambia’s defeated longtime ruler refused to step down from power, deepening a political crisis in the tiny West African country.

Adama Barrow was inaugurated in a hastily arranged ceremony at Gambia’s embassy in neighboring Senegal. The small room held about 40 people, including Senegal’s prime minister and the head of Gambia’s electoral commission.

“This is a day no Gambian will ever forget,” said Barrow, dressed in a flowing white robe. “Our national flag will now fly high among the most democratic nations of the world.”

He ordered Gambia’s armed forces to remain in their barracks. He also called on longtime leader Yahya Jammeh to respect the will of the people and said he would soon form his government and return to Gambia.

Hundreds watched the ceremony on a jumbo TV screen outside the embassy, while people inside Gambia watched television and cheered.

Also at the event were officials from West Africa’s regional bloc, ECOWAS, which had a military force at Gambia’s borders threatening to invade to force Jammeh to step down after he lost December elections.

Shortly after the inauguration, the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved a resolution expressing “full support” to Barrow and calling on Jammeh to step down, condemning his attempts to usurp power. The resolution backed the regional efforts to get Jammeh to respect the election results.

“I think events will move quickly now. Jammeh will not last 90 days remaining in power,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at Chatham House in London. “He may cling onto power for a few more days, increasingly isolated. After the inauguration of Adam Barrow, the trickle of power flowing to him will become more of a flood.”

The U.N. Security Council vote endorsing the regional force’s actions paves the way for the force to “ensure the internationally recognized president takes over power,” Vines said.

“Jammeh clearly believes leaving Gambia in a hurry is an option — his aircraft has been on standby at Banjul airport for two weeks,” Vines said.

Jammeh remained at his official residence, State House, in Gambia’s capital, Banjul, and intended to stay there, said an official close to the administration who was not authorized to speak to reporters. If the regional force is going to arrest Jammeh, it will have to be there, he said.

Many of Jammeh’s loyalists at State House will resist, the official added. But Gambia’s army, estimated at well below 5,000 troops, is divided over its loyalties to Jammeh, and those not sympathetic to him will not leave until they are invited by the new government, the official said.

Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994, initially conceded defeat but then changed his mind and said he would not accept the results, saying the election was marred by irregularities.

Jammeh has resisted strong international pressure for him to step down. His mandate expired at midnight. He declared a state of emergency this week, but there were no signs of military activity Thursday.

African nations began stepping away from Jammeh, with Botswana announcing it no longer recognized him as Gambia’s president. His refusal to hand over power “undermines the ongoing efforts to consolidate democracy and good governance” in Gambia and Africa in general, it said.

The African Union earlier announced that the continental body would no longer recognize Jammeh once his mandate expired.

Congratulations to Barrow began pouring in, including from British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the head of the African Union, who said she would invite Barrow to attend the continental body’s summit late this month.

Just before the inauguration, a Mauritanian official said Jammeh had agreed to cede power but was demanding no foreign interference in Gambia and that Barrow be inaugurated in Gambia, not Senegal. The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz had been attempting to negotiate a way out of the crisis since Wednesday, when he met with Jammeh, Barrow and Senegal President Macky Sall. There have been reports that Jammeh will go into exile in Mauritania.

Thousands of Gambians have fled the country during the crisis, including some former cabinet members who resigned in recent days. Hundreds of foreign tourists, including many from Britain and the Netherlands, were evacuated on special charter flights.

The inauguration raised hopes at home and abroad.

“Barrow’s taking office could be hugely significant for the advancement of human rights in Gambia,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Jim Wormington, who was outside the embassy with hundreds of Gambians.

Inside Gambia, many people watched, hugged and cheered: “New Gambia, new Gambia!”

“It’s unbelievable! Today I can say anything. I am the happiest man on earth,” said Lamin Sama, a 35-year-old in Banjul. “For 22 years we couldn’t say anything, we were like slaves.”