Nearly 900,000 people are eligible to vote in election that could end President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule
The internet, international phone calls and demonstrations have been banned in the Gambia as voters go to the polls for an election that poses the first real threat to President Yahya Jammeh after more than two decades in power.
Jammeh faces unprecedented opposition after a coalition of parties agreed to unite behind a single opposition candidate. Businessman Adama Barrow fired up voters in the past two weeks, the only period allowed for campaigning before the poll.
But the controls on communications and pre-emptive ban on protests are fuelling fears of voting day fraud and worries that there could be violence in its aftermath.
Gambia’s unique election method involves voters placing a marble in a coloured drum representing their chosen candidate. Nearly 900,000 people are eligible to vote at 1,400 polling stations across the small west African country.
The Gambian leader, who has vowed to rule for a billion years and won the previous election with nearly three-quarters of votes, says another victory is all but assured with divine intervention. He refused to answer questions about whether he would concede if he lost.
“We will win the biggest landslide this country has ever seen. If I wasn’t confident we would win, I wouldn’t have voted,” he told journalists as he headed back to an armoured vehicle after casting his vote at a cricket ground in the capital, Banjul.
Local observers said they had been unable to track polling stations because of the internet outage, as they were planning to get results by WhatsApp. Activist Jeggan Grey-Johnson called the outages a “deliberate attempt by the incumbent to control any sort of information sharing”.
There are a few African Union observers at the election, but none from the European Union or the west African regional bloc, Ecowas.
Connections may not be restored until Sunday, a security source told Reuters, although results are expected early on Friday morning. That could thwart any opposition attempts to contest the outcome or organise challenges.
Governments in Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Uganda have previously severed internet connections around election day in order to boost control. Through a nationwide shutdown of the internet and text messaging, the government slowed down the momentum that had built during the campaign, culminating in rallies on Tuesday night that attracted thousands of people.
The military was out in full force in central Banjul on Thursday and the streets of tumbledown colonial-era buildings were empty.
“This election comes at a very tense moment,” said Momodou Bah, president of ProGambia, a team of local volunteer observers. “There’s a strong atmosphere and demonstrations.”
The Gambia is dependent on tourism and mostly subsistence agriculture, with nearly half the population below the poverty line. Thousands of young people risk the dangerous journey across the Sahara and over the Mediterranean to Europe each year, with the goalkeeper of the national women’s football team the most recent casualty.
Barrow has promised to revive the economy, end human rights abuses and even step down three years into an official five-year term, to boost democracy.
The country’s youth, desperate for jobs, largely literate and armed with information from apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook, have been galvanised by his message and the possibility of change.
Many voters were reluctant to speak out against the president in the same way they had during the campaigns and would only say that they hoped the elections would be peaceful.
“Peace is the most important thing,” Maimouna Jarrah said, her baby on her back and clutching her little girl’s hand outside a polling station. “I’m voting for the president. May he rule for a long time. I genuinely like the president from the bottom of my heart; it’s not that he’s done anything for me.”
Ibrahim Garba Cham, the secretary general of the Gambian workers’ union, said the president was “doing his best” and that any failures were just due to lack of funds.
“We’d like to see the leader address socio-economic issues – increase employment and create better living conditions. I didn’t hear any of them [the candidates] address those things.”
Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994 and has won every election since after changing the constitution to remove term limits. He has skilfully exploited tribal and other divisions among multiple opposition parties in past elections and this is the first time he will face a single main challenger.
He still has some real support and the green flags of his party flutter on many houses along the main road through the country, but it is hard to gauge how much of this is because of his autocratic rule.
Journalists and political opponents are regularly detained, tortured and killed, most recently after protests n the spring calling for reforms.
Two main opposition party members died in detention and 15 others have been jailed for three years, but opposition leader Omar Amadou Jallow, of the People’s Progressive party, said this was the year for change despite that clampdown.
“For 22 years, we have realised that Gambia has been turned into a prison,” he told Associated Press. “We are going to give people their freedoms, their liberties. That is more important than anything else.”
Jammeh has made no secret of his desire to hold on to power, vowing to govern “for a billion years if Allah decrees it”, declaring himself “proud to be a dictator” and threatening to bury the “evil vermins called opposition … nine feet deep”.
He barred demonstrations before the vote “because those are the loopholes that are used to destabilise African governments”, he said, but opposition supporters have already warned they will not accept a stolen election.
“The government has been failing for 10 years, but this year, things are getting worse,” opposition supporter Alagie Blajo, 27, said on the eve of the vote. “We’ll send him out without violence but, if necessary, we will be ready to die. There’s no way he can win.”
Human rights activists have also raised fears that a Jammeh victory would lead to later reprisals for the opposition when the world was not watching.