In this image taken from TV, Gambia's longtime leader Yahya Jammeh appears on state TV to give a brief statement agreeing to step down from office, in Banjul, Gambia, the early hours of Saturday morning Jan. 21, 2017 (Photo: AP)
Gambia's authoritarian leader Yahya Jammeh said on Saturday he was stepping down under pressure from regional armies which entered the West African country this week following his refusal to concede an election defeat to President Adama Barrow.
Jammeh was due to go into exile under a deal worked out with African leaders and the announcement on state television ended a reign that began in 1994 when he seized power in a coup.
In practice, Jammeh had little choice after some 7,000 soldiers from Nigeria and Senegal entered Gambia on Thursday backed by tanks and warplanes. They were poised to move into the capital, Banjul, as Jammeh's army provided no resistance.
Jammeh's government established a reputation for torturing and killing perceived opponents to stifle dissent and his departure will likely be welcomed by democracy advocates and viewed as a triumph for African diplomacy.
"I have decided today in good conscience to relinquish the mantle of leadership of this great nation," Jammeh said on state TV, dressed in a white robe and looking fatigued.
"All those who have supported me or were against me in this period, I implore them to put the supreme interest of our nation the Gambia above all partisan interest and endeavour to work together as one nation," he added.
Jammeh said his leaving power was in the national interest, adding he was grateful there was no bloodshed during the stalemate.
The leader was due to leave Gambia on Saturday, but there were conflicting reports as to where he would fly under a deal negotiated by the presidents of Guinea and Mauritania who travelled to Banjul on Friday to mediate, according to sources close to the talks.
Those talks involved whether he could be offered amnesty for alleged crimes committed during his rule, the sources said.
Some in Banjul said they were angry he was being allowed to bargain and sceptical he would in fact step down, not least because he first accepted he lost the Dec. 1 election to Barrow and then changed his mind.
"It's hard because we want our freedom now. But this man he can say this today and tomorrow it can be different. That's the kind of person he is," said Ismaila Ndiaye, 61, a plumber and stone mason as he gathered with others close to State House.
In a last bid to cling to power this week, he declared a state of emergency and dissolved the cabinet while the National Assembly extended his term for three months. More than half the government resigned and 45,000 people fled across the border to Senegal.
Patience Williams, 50, a dental nurse, derided the region's leaders for not taking a tougher line and said: "He's a stubborn man. It should be surrender, handcuffs or death."
'RULE OF FEAR' BANISHED
Barrow, 51, is a soft-spoken man who worked as a property developer and led an opposition coalition few thought would win.
He was sworn in at the Gambian Embassy in Senegal on Thursday and called for international support.
"The rule of fear has been banished from Gambia for good," Barrow told a crowd at a Dakar hotel on Friday, once it became clear a deal had been struck for Jammeh to relinquish power.
"To all of you forced by political circumstances to flee our country, you now have the liberty to return home," he said. Barrow was also expected to return to the country.
The crisis was a test for regional bloc ECOWAS, not least because Jammeh held office longer than any other current president in the grouping of states. The African Union and U.N. Security Council supported the military intervention.
"The accord sees the departure of Jammeh from Gambia for an African country with guarantees for his family, those close to him and himself. He can come back to the country as he pleases," Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was quoted as saying by the Mauritanian state news agency.
Gambia's Atlantic Ocean beaches make it a holiday destination for Europeans. Tourism, peanut production and overseas remittances are crucial to the economy of the country of 1.8 million. GDP is expected to grow 4.5 percent in 2017 after a projected contraction of 4.0 percent last year, World Bank figures showed.