By Emma Farge
BANJUL/DAKAR (Reuters) – Gambia’s President-elect Adama Barrow was to be sworn in at the country’s embassy in neighbouring Senegal on Thursday, officials said, as regional troops prepared to back him in a showdown with defiant incumbent Yahya Jammeh.
The ceremony, scheduled for 1600 GMT, could trigger a military push into Gambia by West Africa’s ECOWAS bloc, which has said it is ready to remove Jammeh by force if he refuses to yield to Barrow, who won December’s presidential election.
Fearing unrest, thousands of Gambians have fled the country, the United Nations estimates, and diplomats said its Security Council would on Thursday vote on a resolution backing ECOWAS’s efforts.
Jammeh, in power since a 1994 coup and whose mandate ended overnight, initially conceded to Barrow before back-tracking, saying the vote was flawed. Overnight talks to persuade him to stand down failed despite his increasing political isolation.
“It is very important to us that (Barrow) …will be sworn in today. Then we can make arrangements for him to go back to Gambia,” said Isatou Toure, a senior Barrow aide.
The ceremony was due to take place in a tiny room in the Dakar embassy, where staff replaced the faded Gambian rooftop flag with a new one.
Outside the building on a residential street amid a heavy security presence, dozens of Gambians gathered as Barrow’s supporters handed out T-shirts bearing the slogan “Gambia has decided”.
“It’s very sad to be swearing in a president in someone else’s country. I am happy and sad at the same time,” said Fatou Silla, 33, a businesswoman who fled Gambia with her son a week ago.
ECOWAS and the African Union have said they will recognise Barrow from Thursday, though it was clear how he would travel to Gambia.
The Gambian capital, Banjul, was largely quiet on Thursday.
As tour companies pressed on with the evacuation of hundreds of European holidaymakers, shops, market stalls and banks remained closed while police circulated in trucks and soldiers manned checkpoints.
Senegal’s army, which has deployed hundreds of soldiers at the Gambian border, said on Wednesday it would be ready to cross into its smaller neighbour, which it surrounds, from midnight. Ghana has also pledged troops.
“What the Senegalese said about the midnight deadline was to put pressure on Jammeh. It was a show of muscle,” a diplomat in the region told Reuters.
A senior military source in Nigeria, which pre-positioned war planes and helicopters in Dakar, told Reuters that regional forces would only act once Barrow had been sworn in.
It was unclear what Jammeh’s next move would be.
He faces almost total diplomatic isolation and a government riddled by defections. In the biggest loss yet, Vice President Isatou Njie Saidy, who has held the role since 1997, quit on Wednesday, a government source and a family member told Reuters.
Gambia’s long, sandy beaches have made it a prime destination for tourists but Jammeh, who once vowed to rule for “a billion years”, has also earned a reputation for rights abuses and stifling dissent.
He has ignored pressure to step aside and offers of exile.
He says the electoral commission was under the influence of “foreign forces”, and has challenged the result in the Supreme Court – which currently lacks the judges necessary to preside over it.
Gambians celebrated in the streets when Jammeh unexpectedly conceded to Barrow, a real estate developer who once worked as a security guard at an Argos store in London. But a week later, the president changed his mind and security forces have cracked down on critics.
It was the latest eccentric act from a leader who has said only Allah can remove him from office, claimed to have a herbal cure for AIDS that only works on Thursdays and threatened to slit the throats of homosexuals.
(Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar, Felix Onuah in Abuja and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Richard Lough and John Stonestreet)