Yahya Jammeh had once pledged he would govern The Gambia for “a billion years”, but his actual 22-year rule came to an end on the evening of January 21, 2017 when he and his close family members boarded a small, unmarked aircraft at the airport in the capital, Banjul.
Jammeh had refused to step down after a December 1, 2016 vote in which opposition leader Adama Barrow was declared the winner, triggering weeks of tension as West African leaders threatened to use military force to remove him if he failed to step down. After days of negotiations with regional heads of state, Jammeh was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea, ending a tenure marked by a litany of alleged abuses and financial plunder.
Five years later, the Gambians are set to return to the polls on Saturday – and for the first time in 27 years, Jammeh, who took power in a 1994 coup, will not be on the ballot. Instead, Barrow, the incumbent president, and five other candidates are vying for the top post, in a closely watched vote that is seen as a test of the country’s democracy.
Political veteran Ousainou Darboe, 73, is considered Barrow’s main rival. A former vice president and lawyer who has represented opponents of Jammeh, Darboe ran for election against the ex-ruler several times.
But even from afar, Jammeh still casts a long shadow over The Gambia, where he retains significant political support. In a string of speeches by telephone, the 56-year-old has urged crowds of rapt listeners not to vote for Barrow but back a coalition run by opposition candidate Mama Kandeh, who came third in 2016 and who Jammeh has described as his “slave”.
His possible return home and how the country should respond to the alleged crimes under his rule – including rape, torture, the use of death squads and state-sanctioned “witch hunts” – have been central themes ahead of the vote.
Polling stations are due to open at 08:00 GMT and close at 17:00 GMT. There will be one round of voting, and initial results could be expected as early as Sunday.
For Barrow, the vote is a test of confidence in his ability to deliver development.
The Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa, is also one of the poorest in the world. About half of its two million inhabitants live on less than $1.90 a day, the World Bank says.
Since taking office, Barrow has stewarded the country, a multi-party democracy, implementing reforms such as repealing the death penalty and releasing political prisoners. Under his leadership, the largely Muslim country filed a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Myanmar of genocide in its campaign against the Rohingya minority.
But the former property developer has also attracted criticism for what some perceive as manoeuvring to secure his political future.
He secured victory in 2016 after a coalition of parties backed him, on the condition that he step down after three years. The president then reneged on the promise, serving the full five-year term allowed under the constitution instead.
Barrow’s NPP party also announced a controversial pact with Jammeh’s APRC in September, raising doubts about his willingness to prosecute Jammeh-era crimes.
In 2017, a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) was set up to investigate crimes committed under Jammeh. The panel heard nearly 400 witnesses, both victims and also former “Junglers”, or members of death squads. On November 25, its highly anticipated and twice-delayed report recommended the government prosecute a number of officials for crimes committed under Jammeh.
The candidate who wins Saturday’s election will have six months to decide how to respond to the report. The APRC has long dismissed the commission’s work as a witch-hunt and has recently been pushing a narrative of reconciliation.
With the election set to be a close race, stakes are high for victims of Jammeh-era crimes, who see the vote as crucial in bringing perpetrators to justice. Activists have expressed disappointment that the commission’s recommendations for prosecutions have not yet been made public.
“This will needlessly prolong the agonising wait of the victims towards closure,” Nana-Jo Ndow, the founder and executive director of victim organisation ANEKED, whose father Saul Ndow is alleged to have been forcibly disappeared during Jammeh’s rule, told Al Jazeera.
“The government can decide to implement them [recommendations] or not. So, the fight for justice continues,” Ndow added.