The atmosphere is tense in the Gambia as the country gears up for the highly-anticipated December 1 presidential election. With a few days left until Gambians choose their next leader, electoral campaigns are fiercely raging on as the opposition parties hope to break President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year-long rule. The country was rocked by a wave of demonstrations in the lead-up to the polls, with protesters calling for the removal of their leader who’s widely viewed as a tyrant.
A lot of Gambians will be looking to elect a leader who will revive their country’s economy which has dramatically collapsed over the years, causing a severe scarcity of jobs. Disadvantaged and desperate for a better life, a great number of Gambians risk their lives as they cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of greener pastures in Europe. According to the U.N., Gambians are in the top 10 nationalities of migrants who make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
The upcoming election will be the small West African nation’s sixth under the new constitution. Out of a population of 2 million, nearly 900,000 people are expected to vote – which is an increase from the 2011 elections, which saw less than 800,000 registered voters.
THE CURRENT PRESIDENT
Yahya Jammeh is seeking reelection for a fifth term in the midst of a growing opposition movement looking to oust the leader who rose to power through a military coup in 1994. Human rights groups accuse the long-standing president of using violence to suppress the opposition and critics. Torture, intimidation, and detention have become his Jammeh’s preferred methods of crushing any dissent. Nearly 20 protesters were imprisoned in April and May this year, one of them being former UDP leader Ousainou Darboe, who received a three-year jail sentence. More shockingly, a prominent activist, Solo Sandeng, was tortured to death in detention in April after being arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest.
The Gambia’s long-time leader Yahya Jammeh faces fierce competition from the opposition. Seven parties have formed a coalition in a bold attempt to unseat the 51-year-old leader, who has ruled the West African country with an iron fist since 1994. The opposition leaders are confident that their unity will earn them triumph. The head of the coalition, Adama Barrow, 51, who is a member of the country’s main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), is seen to have a chance of upsetting Jammeh come 1 December.
Despite all the criticism and unrest, Jammeh remains confident of a win. “No election, no military, or no foreign power can take me out of office unless Allah says so. I’m elected by Allah, and Allah’s election is better than the election of the entire world,” he asserted in early November. Perhaps Jammeh’s overconfidence stems from the fact that he has won every election since 1996.
THE OTHER CANDIDATES
Dr. Isatu Touray is the country’s first female presidential candidate. The 61-year-old academic is on the campaign trail, challenging patriarchal beliefs and encouraging other women and young girls to realise that they have the right and ability to be leaders. Touray is a women’s rights activist, was instrumental in pushing the government to ban female genital mutilation and child marriage last year.
The third presidential candidate is Mamma Kandeh, the leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC), the opposition party that decided to stay away from the coalition and contest independently. Kandeh used to be a member of Jammeh’s ruling party and an MP, until his expulsion in 2013. He went on to form his own party in April this year.
The West African state operates a majority vote system – the most common system in which the candidate with the absolute majority of votes wins. Like in many other African countries, the Gambian president is elected for a five-year term.
In a country where transparency has always been an issue, it’s commendable that the country’s electoral commission recently introduced an on-the-spot counting of votes to help facilitate free and fair elections.
HOW 2011 INFORMS 2016
Gambians are hoping that this time around won’t be like the 2011 election, which was widely seen as unfair and rigged. In 2011, Jammeh scored a landslide victory with 72% of the vote, prompting the UDP to reject the results, calling them “bogus, fraudulent, and preposterous.”
In an attempt to instill confidence in the voters, Jammeh has called for peaceful and free elections ahead of the December polls. This move, however, hasn’t stopped the opposition and many Gambians to be apprehensive about how the upcoming election will be handled.