ONGOING: Meeting to persuade Yahya Jammeh to leave office.

Four African heads of state landed in The Gambia on Tuesday with a mission to persuade President Yahya Jammeh to leave office after his defeat at the ballot box.

Mr Jammeh’s party has vowed to challenge the December 1 vote result in court, leading to an avalanche of international condemnation and multitude of calls for him to cede power to opponent Adama Barrow, who was officially declared the winner.

Mr Jammeh is in an ongoing meeting with Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma and Ghana’s outgoing President John Mahama on Wednesday.

The heavyweight delegation of west Africa’s biggest hitters, who have significant ties to The Gambia, will be joined by United Nations West Africa envoy Mohamed Ibn Chambas.

The African leaders will then hold separate talks with Barrow, several sources told AFP.

Banjul-based diplomats say Buhari in particular has long been annoyed by Jammeh’s provocative behaviour and disdain for protocol.

Up until now the president of the tiny country of fewer than two million people may have exasperated his peers but has never threatened peace in the sub-region, a situation that has dramatically shifted since Jammeh’s move to void the election.

“It is unacceptable that there is an election and one person turns down the result,” Liberia’s information minister Eugene Nagbe told AFP on Tuesday. “The message of President Sirleaf and her delegation to Jammeh will be that he accepts the result and gives way to smooth transition.”

DRACONIAN DECISIONS

If Jammeh and the delegation did not reach an agreement, west African states would “contemplate more draconian decisions”, a top official with the regional ECOWAS bloc headed by Sirleaf told French radio station RFI late Monday.

Streets from the airport were quiet as Gambians awaited the leaders’ arrival, but some parents kept their children home from school as a precaution.

President-elect Barrow has told AFP he wants Jammeh to step down “now”, though the longtime leader has the legal right to stay in office until mid-January.

The African Union has also promised to dispatch its own delegation as soon as possible to aid the transfer of power, while a statement released Monday said it rejected “any attempt to circumvent or reverse the outcome of the presidential election.”

Mr Jammeh, who took office in a coup, has led The Gambia for 22 years. Meanwhile it was unclear whether Jammeh’s party would file a complaint with the Supreme Court on Tuesday, thought to be constitutionally the last day possible to contest the election result.

A group of the country’s most influential lawyers has said there is “no legitimate legal mechanism available in The Gambia to hear and determine the election petition”, as Jammeh would have to stuff the court with his own appointees.

The legal body has lain dormant since May 2015 as Jammeh himself sacked many of its judges.

A readjustment of the votes counted in the election was made on Monday last week, reducing the number of ballots for all three candidates but ultimately confirming Barrow’s victory. Overnight the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, warned that The Gambia faced “a very dangerous moment”, citing reports that some military officers have sided with Jammeh in the standoff.

Jammeh has led The Gambia for 22 years since taking power in a coup.

JOURNALISTS HELD

Meanwhile, two journalists working for the Arabic-language service of international news organisation Al-Jazeera were held by security forces in The Gambia and deported, Gambian and Mauritanian sources told AFP on Tuesday.

The channel’s Mauritania bureau chief Zeinebou Mint Erebih and cameraman Mohamed Ould Beidar were taken away from their upmarket hotel by plainclothes officers and detained on Sunday night, sources close to the journalists said.

They were quickly released and transported to Banjul airport where they were deported to neighbouring Senegal, according to Mauritanian sources.

The pair are believed to have entered the country on Tuesday, five days after a contested presidential election was held. Al-Jazeera journalists were refused accreditation prior to the December 1 vote won by opposition leader.

Adama Barrow after 22 years of rule by President Yahya Jammeh, who is now challenging the result.

The network is well known in The Gambia for broadcasting several hard-hitting reports including of street protests in April that led to the jailing of dozens of opposition figures.

Separate sources close to the Gambian communications ministry said the journalists had recently requested an interview with minister Sheriff Bojang, but were told Al-Jazeera was “banned” in the country.

Erebih and Beidar succeeded in interviewing president-elect Barrow, however, with the meeting also published in English and posted online.

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