BANJUL, Gambia — Gambia’s president of 22 years acknowledged his election defeat on state television Friday night, vowing to step down hours after news of the results prompted thousands to celebrate in the streets in an unprecedented display of disdain for his rule.
With cameras rolling, Yahya Jammeh called the winner, opposition coalition leader Adama Barrow, on a mobile phone to praise the election and vow not to contest the result.
“Allah is telling me my time is up and I hand over graciously with gratitude toward the Gambian people and gratitude toward you,” Jammeh said.
Jammeh, a man long accused of heading a government that tortures opponents and silences all dissent, was jovial on the call, promising to help Barrow through the transition period before retiring to his home village to begin a new life as a farmer.
It was a stunning turn of events in a country where critics have long alleged votes are rigged. Just five years ago, Jammehsaid he could stay in power for a billion years.
According to the electoral commission’s tally, Barrow received 45 percent of Thursday’s vote compared to Jammeh’s 36 percent.
Many Gambians stayed up all night Thursday listening to the radio and tallying results as they were read out constituency by constituency.
Once the results were announced on Friday, some tore down posters of Jammeh as the military stood by. Men in pickup trucks rode through the streets of Banjul screaming “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
For the tens of thousands watching abroad from political exile, it was a day they thought might never come.
Speaking by phone from Washington, Gambian activist Pasamba Jow said the election was a “great victory” for the country and the entire African continent, though he anticipated a “difficult task of rebuilding our country and healing our nation.”
Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, in a statement Friday congratulated Barrow and welcomed Jammeh’s concession, saying the country’s first democratic transfer of power is a “moment of great opportunity.”
“The United States looks forward to being a strong partner in efforts to unify the country,” he said.
Eight opposition parties united behind Barrow, a former businessman, and the campaign period featured large opposition rallies.
Nevertheless, Jammeh had projected confidence, saying his victory was all but assured by God and predicting “the biggest landslide in the history of the country” after he voted.
“We are happy to be free,” said Omar Amadou Jallow, an opposition leader for the People’s Progressive Party, which joined the coalition that backed Barrow. “We are able to free the Gambian people from the clutches of dictatorship, and we are now going to make sure Gambia becomes a bastion of peace and coalition. Our foundation will be based on national reconciliation.”
Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994 and then swept elections in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 after a 2002 constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits. Critics say those earlier elections were not free and fair.
All internet and international phone service was cut on election day in what Jammeh’s government said was a bid to thwart unrest.
Jammeh’s ouster demonstrates that even Africa’s most entrenched leaders can be brought down if opposition politicians overcome their divisions, said Jeffrey Smith, a human rights activist and founding director of Vanguard Africa, a U.S.-based group that worked with Gambia’s opposition coalition.
“This is going to have resonance way beyond the tiny borders of Gambia,” Smith said, describing the result as “a momentous occasion for the region writ large.”
Story: Carley Petesch