Thousands of people have begun fleeing Gambia amid growing signs that West African states could invade the former British colony within days.
Regional leaders have signalled their determination to mount a rare African defence of democratic principle by using force to ensure that Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s president of 22 years, gives up power following his defeat in an election last month.
Nigeria has reportedly asked British military advisers to assist in planning a “rapid reaction” military incursion into Gambia in order to install Adama Barrow, the election’s surprise winner, as the country’s new president.
Mr Barrow, a former real estate agent who briefly worked as a security guard at an Argos catalogue store while studying in London, was supposed to have been sworn in on Thursday — but Mr Jammeh, having initially conceded defeat, later reversed course and is refusing to stand down.
Mr Barrow left Gambia for neighbouring Senegal at the weekend at the advice of regional leaders, and will not return home until his inauguration until Thursday – perhaps under the escort of West African troops.
The president-elect’s inauguration plans were struck by tragedy after his son Habibu, who was eight, died on the way to hospital on Sunday after being bitten by a dog the previous evening near the capital Banjul, according to the BBC and postings by Gambians on Twitter.
Mr Barrow was unable to return for his son’s funeral, which took place almost immediately, as required by Islamic rite. Pictures posted on Twitter showed what appeared to be Habibu’s casket, covered in a black cotton shroud, being carried through a grove by mourners.
Habibu Barrow is survived by four siblings.
With time for a diplomatic solution rapidly running out leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-state regional bloc, have authorised a military response that has the unofficial blessing of the United Nations Security Council.
Although the proposed mission is likely to be headed by Senegal, Nigerian troops are likely to make up the bulk of the force. The Nigerian government last week authorised generals to mobilise an 800-strong battalion to spearhead the mission.
In a sign of its dwindling diplomatic clout among its former African colonies, Britain has played little role so far in the crisis. Instead, Francois Hollande, the French president, took advantage of Britain’s diminished ambitions to meet with Mr Barrow over the weekend.
However, British officers training the Nigerian army in counter-terrorism operations against the Islamist Boko Haram group have been asked to give logistical and planning support to the mission, regional officials say. It is unclear if the request has been granted.
It is hoped that a military operation could be fairly swift. Mr Jammeh’s army has just 900 soldiers, some of whom were seen partying in the streets after he lost the election.
“I dare to hope that African wisdom will convince our brother [to] understand the greater good for the Gambia, which does not need a bloodbath,” said Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the president of Mali.
But Mr Jammeh, seen by critics as a serial human-rights abuser who once vowed to “rule for a billion years with the help of Allah”, has shrugged off the calls. He has instead shut independent radio stations, arrested activists and sent soldiers to storm the electoral commission.
Fearing just such a bloodbath, hundreds of people have begun thronging ferry terminals on the River Gambia every day hoping for safe passage into Senegal. The United Nations refugee agency says it is assessing the situation.