Gambian leader, Yahya Jammeh, who vowed to rule Gambia for “a billion years”, was handed a shock election defeat on Friday 22 years after seizing power in a coup.
Voting on Thursday against Jammeh, who has not been seen in public since the result was confirmed, was a rare show of defiance against a leader who has ruled by decree and who rights groups say crushes dissent by imprisoning and torturing opponents.
Gambians celebrated in the streets of Banjul, a normally sleepy seaside capital whose white beaches lined with palm trees are a draw for European tourists.
“We are free. We won’t be slaves of anyone.” Some waved the Gambian flag and opposition party signs, Gambians shouted.
Hours after the electoral commission head declared businessman Adama Barrow president-elect on state television, with 45.5% of the vote against Jammeh’s 36.7%, there was no official word from Jammeh or his team about stepping down or accepting the outcome.
However, the lack of a security presence among revelers denouncing the old guard suggested the result would stand.
A peaceful handover of power in Gambia would be a welcome surprise for African democracy at a time when many of the continent’s leaders have been rigging polls, fiddling with constitutions to extend their terms in office and cracking down on peaceful protest.
A celebrating teacher, Lamin Joof in Banjul said, “African heads of state if they are defeated should take the example of Jammeh by leaving office honourably,”
But even if he does, it is unlikely to have a ripple effect across Africa since Gambia, a sliver of land along the banks of a river on its west coast with few natural resources and little trade or diplomatic presence has always been an outlier.
Barrow, a real estate developer who once worked as security guard at retailer Argos in London, earlier told Reuters he was expecting a phone call from Jammeh conceding defeat, a turnaround for a leader who only this week said that his “presidency and power are in the hands of Allah and only Allah can take it from me”.
“I never in my dreams believed he would concede. It almost feels too good to be true,” said Ramzia Diab, an opposition member who fled to Senegal after getting death threats.
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