BANJUL, Gambia—Gambians tore down posters of longtime President Yahya Jammeh and celebrated in the streets as the military stood by Friday after election officials said the ruler of more than two decades would concede defeat in a startling turn of events for a country where the critics have long alleged votes are rigged and opponents jailed.
Jammeh was expected to address the nation Friday evening, although already his fate appeared all but sealed by the unprecedented crowds publicly cheering his ouster. A group of men packed in a pickup truck screamed “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”
Just days earlier Jammeh had declared that no demonstrations of any kind would be permitted regardless of the vote’s outcome.
For the tens of thousands watching abroad from political exile, it was a day they thought might never come.
“We have freedom at last! And there will be an economic boom, and people jailed can be freed, and people exiled abroad will come back home to their families,” said Aminata Jawara, a 23-year-old lab technician.
Jammeh finished with just 36 percent of the vote compared to the winner Adama Barrow with 45 percent. Another opposition candidate who was not in the eight-party coalition finished with 17 percent, according to the national election commission.
Jammeh will be calling Barrow “to congratulate him and pray for peace and tranquility,” said Alieu Momarr Njai, chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission. Jammeh himself had not issued a public statement by late afternoon.
Many Gambians stayed up all night listening to the radio and tallying results as they were read out constituency by constituency. News of Barrow’s victory prompted thousands to take to the streets in celebration—some on foot while others rode in cars and trucks and on motorbikes—as confused soldiers looked on.
Eight opposition parties united behind Barrow, a former businessman, and the campaign period featured large opposition rallies and unprecedented expressions of frustration with Jammeh’s rule.
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 on Thursday.
“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 a bid by Jammeh to thwart unrest.
If Jammeh does step down peacefully, it would demonstrate that even Africa’s most entrenched leaders can be brought down if opposition politicians overcome their divisions and unite, 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.”