Gambian activists urge justice as longtime leader steps down

BANJUL: As Gambia's defeated authoritarian ruler prepares to leave the country, human rights activists demand that he be held accountable for alleged abuses.

Yahya Jammeh announced early Saturday he will cede power, after hours of last-ditch talks with regional leaders and the threat that a regional military force would forcibly remove him.

No date has been set for the return of Gambian President Adama Barrow, who beat Jammeh in last month's election and who was sworn into office Thursday in neighboring Senegal, where he was for his safety. "The rule of fear" in Gambia had ended with Jammeh's rule, said Barrow late Friday.

Jammeh, who once vowed to rule for a billion years, could leave Gambia Saturday but may stay on for three days, according to those close to the negotiations mediated by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Guinean President Alpha Conde. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak about the situation to the press.

Jammeh's agreement to step down brought an end to the political crisis in this tiny West African nation of 1.9 million, that attracts British and European tourists to its tropical weather and Atlantic beaches, promoted as "the Smiling Coast."

Gambian human rights activists are insisting that Jammeh be held accountable for alleged human rights abuses during his 22-year rule and that he not be able to keep funds illegally amassed.

"Jammeh came as a pauper bearing guns. He should leave as a disrobed despot. The properties he seeks to protect belong to Gambians and Gambia and he must not be allowed to take them with him. He must leave our country without conditionalities," said Jeggan Bahoum of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy in Gambia.

An online petition urged that Jammeh not be granted asylum and should instead be arrested for alleged human rights abuses.

Famously mercurial Jammeh initially shocked Gambians by conceding his election loss to Barrow in December. But after human rights activists demanded his arrest for alleged abuses, Jammeh refused to accept his defeat and refused to leave power.

Jammeh, who first seized power in a 1994 coup, has been holed up this week in his official residence in Banjul, increasingly isolated as he was abandoned by his security forces and several Cabinet members.

The West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, pledged to remove Jammeh by force if he did not step down. The group assembled a multinational military force including tanks that rolled into Gambia Thursday. The force included troops from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and Mali, and they moved in after Barrow's inauguration and a unanimous vote by the U.N. Security Council supporting the regional efforts.

Fearing violence, about 45,000 people have fled Gambia for Senegal, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

After days of uncertainty, Banjul was peaceful Saturday with life slowly returning to normal, although many shops remained closed.

Jammeh's announcement to relinquish power is a good first step, said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa. "For the Gambia to truly move on, President Barrow must reside in state house and begin the task of governing. In an ideal scenario, Jammeh will also face justice for the many crimes he has committed since 1994," wrote Smith by email. "From the outset, ECOWAS played a proactive role in the Gambia, and I think their leadership should be applauded. The successful outcome represents an important precedent and hopefully builds momentum towards a more robust defense of democracy in the region and beyond."