Foreign tourist companies have cancelled package holidays to The Gambia after President Yahya Jammeh declared a state of emergency late on Tuesday in the tiny West African country.
Tourism is key to The Gambia’s economy, contributing GMD7.7bn ($173m) – or 20% – to the country’s GDP in 2015, according to the World Travel and Tourism council. But the deteriorating security situation in the country has led tourist companies, including the UK-based Thomas Cook, to begin to repatriate more than 3,000 holidaymakers over the next 48 hours, according to a company statement.
“The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has yesterday evening, 17 January, changed its advice on travel to the Gambia to advise against all but essential travel,” Thomas Cook said. “This is based upon the risk of unrest in the country as a result of the disputed presidential inauguration on 19 January.”
“We have implemented our contingency plans to bring all our UK customers home as soon as possible,” the company added. UK tourists account for 60% of all tourists that travel to The Gambia. Meanwhile, around 1,600 Dutch tourists are also being flown out of the country.
The security situation in The Gambia has worsened after President Jammeh, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 22 years since he staged a coup, was defeated by coalition opposition leader Adama Barrow in the presidential elections held at the beginning of December 2016. In a move that surprised many commentators, the president conceded the election, with Barrow – who is a property developer – expressing optimism that he would be sworn in on Thursday 19 January 2017.
But, just 10 days after Gambians went to the polls, President Jammeh had reversed his decision and was calling for fresh elections. Meanwhile, the country’s parliament has extended his region by 90 days on Wednesday.
The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), however, called on Jammeh to relinquish power peacefully and warned him that he could face military action if he refused; and the 54-member African Union has said it will not recognise him after his term expires on Thursday. Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Morocco and Nigeria have all offered to provide Jammeh with asylum but the president has so far rebuffed the proposals.
Thousands of Gambians have reportedly fled the country over fears that there could be a war in the country. The situation will have a major impact on The Gambia’s economy as foreign investment dwindles, according to Seán Smith, West Africa at global risk advisory company Verisk Maplecroft.
“As long as the situation remains unstable, investors and tourists that provide much of the country’s foreign currency will stay away,” Smith said. “However, [if or] when Barrow is inaugurated the long-term economic prospects of The Gambia will be positive with investors likely to return due to the stability the president-elect will offer.”
The situation in the Gambia could escalate into a wider conflict involving The Gambia’s regional neighbours following some media reports said that Jammeh – whose military force numbers no more than 3,000 military personal – could be attempting to recruit mercenaries from the Senegalese separatist group the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) and ex-Liberian fighters. MFDC is a militant group that has been operating in the Casamance region of southern Senegal for 35 years with the aim of creating an independent state.
If the reports are confirmed, then Senegal, which surrounds the tiny country, will be forced to act to quell a potential resurgent MFDC, according to Smith. “Were President Jammeh to harness the assistance of the MFDC then the situation could escalate into a wider regional conflict drawing in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau,” Smith said.