BANJUL, Gambia: Thousands of supporters of Gambia's former dictator Yahya Jammeh demonstrated Thursday (Jan 16) on the outskirts of the capital Banjul, demanding his return from exile.
The protest came days after the former autocrat was heard in a leaked audio recording insisting that the tiny West African state guarantee his right to return.
Jammeh ruled Gambia with an iron fist for 22 years, but fled in January 2017 after losing a presidential election to relative unknown Adama Barrow.
Calls for his return from Equatorial Guinea have grown recently as tensions heighten over Barrow's decision to stay in office for five years - reversing a previous pledge to step down after three.
On Thursday, thousands of supporters of Jammeh's Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party gathered in Sukuta, a town 20km from Banjul, an AFP journalist said.
"We need him one hundred per cent. We are ready to die for him," said 26-year-old protester Ismaila Colley, referring to Jammeh.
"Before Jammeh left here for exile, there was an agreement for him to come back into the country after three years."
Thousands of Gambians protested last month demanding that Barrow step down, and similar protests are planned for Jan 19 or 20.
Barrow supporters have also held counter-demonstrations.
The ex-president's supporters argue he has a right to return under a joint statement from the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the United Nations, published at the time of his exile.
The organisations committed to working with the Gambian government to ensure Jammeh's security and rights, in particular his right to return.
Maimuna Jaju, a 23-year-old businesswoman, told AFP that people were "experiencing hardship" under Barrow.
"This is why we want former President Jammeh to come back and take over the mantle of leadership," she added.
In the audio recording leaked last week, the ex-president said he supported Thursday's protest.
"The fact of the matter is to meet the authorities and make it very clear to them that the agreement must be implemented," Jammeh said in the recording.
Barrow's cabinet has said that Jammeh can return as a citizen but cannot run for president again.
The former autocrat is accused of numerous human rights abuses.
Since January 2019, some 190 witnesses have appeared before a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) set up to investigate abuses under his rule.