Gambia crunch talks overshadowed by refugee crisis fears
West African leaders began crisis talks with President Yahya Jammeh on Friday over his refusal to leave power, as fears grew of a refugee exodus caused by the nation’s political impasse.
Appointed chief mediator by a group of west African states, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari led the delegation along with Ghana’s former president John Mahama and Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who attempted similar negotiations last month without success.
Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 coup, has made clear he will not quit as president until the country’s Supreme Court decides on a legal case he has lodged aimed at having the result annulled and fresh elections called.
Buhari told journalists “only God knows” if the Gambian leader will step down as he left a luxury hotel to meet him, but his foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama said he was “pretty optimistic that the talks will not fail this time.”
The delegation landed with just five days left of Jammeh’s five-year term to go, and with a warning by the president late Tuesday to the international community that “undue external interference” was unnecessary.
The Supreme Court is unlikely to sit and hear his legal challenge before May, ratcheting up tensions with the winner of the December 1 election, Adama Barrow, whose inauguration is due January 19.
– Gambians fleeing –
The prolonged political uncertainty and fear of unrest has pushed thousands of Gambians across the border into neighbouring Senegal and further afield to Guinea-Bissau.
Tibna Sambe Na Wana, the national coordinator for Guinea-Bissau’s refugee commission, said more than a thousand Gambians had crossed into the country, where they do not require a visa, in recent days.
“It is clear that the total number is far higher than a thousand and rising daily,” Na Wana said.
Women, children and the elderly made up the greatest numbers, the official said, with more than 500 passing one border post near the town of Jegue in three days.
“They say they are scared of a military escalation,” Na Wana added.
In Senegal, the UN’s refugee agency said “several thousand people” had crossed into the southern Casamance region from The Gambia, especially children.
Senegal and The Gambia have deep ethnic and linguistic ties, and most families have relatives living across the border.
“Most arrivals in Senegal are Gambians and Senegalese who have been working or living in The Gambia,” said Liz Ahua, UNHCR’s representative for West Africa in Dakar, but said Africans from several other nations were also crossing.
With the migrants moving into their relatives’ homes, households have doubled or tripled in size in a few days, the UN agency said, putting a strain on food supply.
A nation of fewer than two million people, The Gambia already accounts for the highest number of migrants per capita of any nationality crossing the Mediterranean on smugglers’ boats to Italy.