Gambia votes in first presidential poll since dictator fled

Exiled Yahya Jammeh was defeated by current president Adama Barrow in 2017

An election official carries marbles in a wire tray to an audience of election observers in Banjul. Gambia. The voting will be closely watched as a test of the democratic transition in the country. AFP

Counting was underway Saturday after Gambians voted in the first presidential election in the tiny West African nation since former dictator Yahya Jammeh fled into exile.

Voting finished at 1700 GMT, and with counting already begun, early results in the one-round presidential election could be announced as early as Sunday.

The election is being closely watched as a test of the democratic transition in The Gambia, where Jammeh ruled for 22 years after seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1994.

The ex-autocrat was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea in January 2017 after Adama Barrow, then a relative unknown, defeated him at the ballot box.

President Barrow, 56, is now running for re-election, and faces five other candidates.

As he voted near the presidential palace, he predicted "the biggest landslide victory in the history of this country," saying "in the next 24 hours my people will be celebrating in the streets".

Polls opened at 0800 GMT, with long lines forming well before dawn in the capital Banjul.

Quote
It is a very important to vote because we want change ... the times have been hard, the economy is bad
Gambian voter

Nearly 500 people lined up around the block at a market in the Banjul neighbourhood of Manjai Kunda, ready for hours of waiting.

"I expect that people vote peacefully," said voter Alice Jarjue, 27.

"Gambia is a peaceful country and we should maintain it that way. If another one (than your candidate) wins, you should respect that."

Babacar Diallo, 48, lined up early to vote.

"It is a very important to vote because we want change," he said. "The times have been hard, the economy is bad."

Many voters in the nation of more than two million people are hoping for an improvement in their living standards.

Lawyer Ousainou Darboe leads opposition charge

The Gambia, a sliver of land about 480 kilometres (300 miles) long, which is surrounded by Senegal, is one of the poorest countries in the world.

About half of the population live on less than $1.90 per day, the World Bank says.

The tourism-dependent economy in the former British colony was also dealt a severe blow by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Barrow is running on a continuity ticket, pointing to infrastructure projects completed under his watch, as well as increased civil liberties.

Political veteran Ousainou Darboe is considered by observers to be the leading opposition candidate.

Speaking as he voted in Serekunda, near Banjul, Darboe thanked God, saying "he has given me the strength to conduct my country".

Ousainou Darboe, leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) the main opposition party, is the main threat to incumbent president Adama Barrow. AFP

The 73-year-old is a lawyer who has represented opponents of Mr Jammeh, and who ran for president against the former dictator several times.

He also served as foreign minister and then vice president under Barrow, before stepping down in 2019.

Each candidate has their own ballot box at Gambian polls, and voters choose their preferred politician by dropping a marble inside one of the boxes.

The unusual voting method is because of low literacy rates in the country.

Shadow of former Gambian dictator looms large

Questions over Mr Jammeh's continuing role in politics, and his possible return from exile, have been central themes in the run-up to the election.

The 56-year-old former dictator has also sought to influence the vote, remotely addressing rallies of supporters during the campaign period.

Mr Jammeh retains significant political support in The Gambia.

Another political camp, however, is pushing for criminal charges against Mr Jammeh for alleged abuses committed under his rule.

A woman gets her finger marked with ink before casting her vote in the Gambian presidential election. AFP

President Barrow set up a truth commission to probe the alleged abuses after coming to office.

Before hearings ended in May, it heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses about state-sanctioned death squads, witch hunts and forcing bogus cures on AIDS patients.

The commission recommended in November the government pursue criminal charges, in a final report delivered to Barrow but not released to the public.

The names of the officials against whom charges were recommended were also not released.

Criminal charges are politically sensitive given Mr Jammeh's following.

There are also growing doubts about President Barrow's enthusiasm for prosecutions, despite previous rhetoric that was tough on Jammeh.

In September, for example, Mr Barrow's NPP party announced a pact with Mr Jammeh's APRC - a controversial move that was viewed as an electoral ploy.

Updated: December 4th 2021, 11:03 PM