Senegalese troops were massed last night on the Gambian border, preparing for a possible invasion if Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s president, refused to step down by midnight.
Minutes after midnight, the official end of his term in office, there was no word from Mr Jammeh.
As the clock ticked down on Mr Jammeh’s term, diplomatic efforts to persuade him to go had continued. Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mauritania’s president, flew to Banjul, Gambia’s capital, in the late afternoon with what was thought to be an offer of asylum for Mr Jammeh and his entourage.
Mr Aziz left Gambia shortly before midnight, flying to Senegal to meet Macky Sall, the president.
A tense Banjul was braced for Senegalese troops to intervene after the Associated Press reported that Dakar had submitted a draft resolution backing action to the UN Security Council late on Wednesday. The Senegalese are part of a force being put together by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).
“We are ready and are awaiting the deadline at midnight. If no political solution is found, we will step in,” Colonel Abdou Ndiaye of the Senegal army told Reuters.
Halifa Sallah, a member of the opposition coalition led by Adama Barrow, the president-elect, said Mr Jammeh could stop any intervention by accepting his defeat in December’s election. “If Gambians cannot take charge of their destiny others may do so,” he said.
Mr Sallah said the coalition had been forced to abandon plans to hold Thursday’s inauguration as Mr Barrow waited in Dakar, capital of Senegal.
Suggestions were made that the swearing-in — which Mr Sallah said would definitely take place on “Gambian territory” on Thursday — might be held in Gambia’s embassy in Dakar, technically Gambian territory. Alternatively, diplomats said, Mr Barrow could cross the border under military protection for an impromptu ceremony in Gambia itself.
Mr Jammeh initially accepted his surprise electoral defeat in December to Mr Barrow, a property developer and relative political novice, but then quickly backtracked. The president, who took power in a coup in 1994 and has ruled with absolute authority since, cited irregularities in electoral procedures over which his administration had complete control.
Since then, Mr Jammeh has busied himself lodging a series of legal injunctions designed to stop Mr Barrow from assuming office, while arresting disloyal army officers and shutting down opposition radio stations. On Tuesday, he declared a state of emergency for 90 days in what appeared to be his latest tactic.
Banjul, which is normally busy with traffic and should have had the added bustle of handover preparations, was unusually quiet.
Thomas Cook, the travel company, said it was implementing contingency plans to fly back more than 3,000 tourists in the country after the UK advised against all but essential travel to Gambia.
Soldiers milled around in some parts of the verdant and mostly low-rise capital.
“We want him to go down. Twenty-two years is too much now,” said Dawda Jallow, a taxi driver.
Though many fear to speak openly, Mr Jallow said everyone wanted change. “We are certain it will happen,” he said, hopefully, of Thursday’s inauguration. “The constitution says his mandate will end on the 18th.”
Gambia’s crisis is seen as the latest test of African leaders’ commitment to democracy, with people across the continent watching to see whether Mr Jammeh, a throwback to a previous era of autocrats, can be eased out.
The 54-member African Union has said it will not recognise him after his term expires. Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the UN’s senior regional representative, said it was time west Africa’s “democracy train” arrived in Gambia.
As well as Mauritania, asylum offers have also been made to Mr Jammeh by Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Morocco and Nigeria. But the president, who once said he would rule for a billion years if Allah willed it, was not taking the bait.
Mr Sallah said Mr Jammeh’s erratic temperament meant a military confrontation could not be ruled out if he dug in. “There could be dead bodies on the street. There could be destroyed buildings,” he said, adding that everyone hoped the transition could be managed peacefully without “the country being torn to shreds”.