Gambians head to the polls

The West African country will vote for a president on November 24, and longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh is expected to win.

Yahya Jammeh
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has held the office since 1996 [EPA]

On November 24 the people of The Gambia will decide who rules their country for the next five years.

Yahya AJJ Jammeh, the incumbent and leader of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party, is being challenged by two opposition candidates: United Democratic Party (UDP) leader Ousainou Darboe, and an independent candidate, Hamat NK Bah, whose candidacy is backed by four opposition parties collectively called “the United Front”. 

The electoral system in The Gambia is the “first past the post system”, in which a candidate getting a simple majority of votes wins the election. Almost 800,000 people are eligible to vote in 1,301 polling stations nationwide. The Gambia’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will start announcing the results on Thursday night, but the final result is expected around midday on Friday.

Who is expected to win?

Jammeh is widely believed to be the favourite to win a consecutive fourth term of office, having won every election since 1996 when his military-turned-civilian government won the first election under the Second Republic. Most observers believe President Jammeh is certain to remain in power regardless of the outcome of the elections.

Ousainou Darboe, 62, is running against Jammeh for the fourth time. It is his last chance to unseat Jammeh, since age is no longer on his side. The electoral laws of the country state that no candidate older than 65 can run for the presidency and by 2016, the year that the next presidential election will be held, Darboe will be over the age limit.

Hamat NK Bah, who is running against Jammeh for the third time, is standing as an independent candidate backed by four opposition parties, including the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), the National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD), and the Gambia Party for Democracy and Progress (GPDP).

This “United Front” was formed following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the parties. A convention was held among them and Mr Bah was eventually elected to lead the grouping. Under the agreement, Bah will resign from his party 24 hours before the nomination and run as an independent, in what Bah said was a move that would enable him “to effectively lead the United Front”.

“Anyone who wants to destroy the peace we have here, I will destroy you.”

– Gambian President Yahya Jammeh

Campaigning will end Wednesday, November 23 by midnight. But opposition parties and candidates have lamented the short period allowed for campaigning, which they described as “very inadequate” for them to tour the length and breadth of the country. The IEC only gave 11 days to the political parties to officially campaign. Since mid-2011, the IEC refused to pay heed to calls by the opposition to extend the campaign period.

The campaign started amid a “cloud of fear” amongst Gambians, including human rights defenders. “The peace of this country will not be destroyed at the altar of elections,” Jammeh said on November 10, when submitting his nomination papers. His comments followed widespread comments that an “Ivory Coast-type election standoff” is imminent in this year’s elections. He declared: “Anyone who wants to do it will not witness it. Anyone who wants to destroy the peace we have here, I will destroy you.” Jammeh has since refused to recognise Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the Ivory Coast elections and as the legitimate leader of that country.

Jammeh also declared that “no Western election observer” will be allowed into The Gambia come the next presidential election in 2016, in reaction to Western bodies like the European Commission’s non-funding of the current election. Apart from $100,000 given to the IEC by the UN Development Programme’s country office, the Gambian government is solely funding this year’s election.

Jammeh’s compatriots Mr Darboe and Mr Bah have vowed not to allow militants affiliated with the ruling party to interfere with their campaign programme, as had occurred in 2006. “If you could remember in 2006, I was held hostage for four hours in my house,” laments Darboe, who said that at the time he was held hostage, he contacted IEC Chairman Alhaji Mustapha L Carayol by telephone. Carayol said he could do nothing about it. “That will not be allowed this time and I want you to take charge,” Darboe said.

This tiny West African country has had a bad human rights record since 1994, when Jammeh overthrew the government of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara. Since then, the order of the days has been harassment, arrest, detention, killings, bogus charges and sentencing journalists and perceived political opponents. This year, the issue of human rights is at the heart of the opposition camp’s political agenda, with the United Front adopting a Mandinka (local language) slogan: “Mo beh balou” – meaning “All should live”.

Development plans

President Jammeh, a well-known hardliner, has adopted a rather soft tone this time, saying, “I can’t force anyone to vote for me”. He urged his militants not to do anything stupid to the opposition during the campaign period. He promised to fix the erratic and unreliable power supply in the country, and to improve the country’s declining agriculture sector. He also plans to build more infrastructure, although his opponents have criticised some previous such infrastructure projects as “useless”.

Jammeh had vowed not to campaign this time. But he came to fear that sitting down could damage his political aspirations, and has since gone canvassing for votes. He says his mother had asked him to embark on a “thank you tour” to his supporters.

Mr Darboe, who is considered to be the main opposition leader, promises to fix the country’s “bad” economy if elected into office on November 24. He has also promised in his party’s manifesto to exercise the rule of law, which he called “a travesty” under the Jammeh regime.

With the country listed as one of the world’s highly-indebted poor countries (HIPC), Mr Darboe added: “I will alleviate the rising rate of poverty and enhanced agriculture” which has long been the backbone of The Gambia’s economy.

Mr Bah promises to make housing affordable to all Gambians if he is elected to occupy the country’s top seat. “The first phase of this housing scheme will have 20,000 houses built for civil servants and the military,” he explained, pledging to create more job opportunities to absorb the many frustrated young Gambians “who have been left hopeless by the current APRC regime”.

Will the election be competitive?

The opposition has been projected to stand a slim chance of unseating President Jammeh after talks of an all-opposition coalition failed in September 2011. Nevertheless, the election is still expected to be competitive, based on the widespread belief that many Gambian “silent voters” who have suffered repression under the Jammeh regime, and the majority of unemployed citizens, will not vote for him – but this remains uncertain.

IEC Chairman Carayol was hand-picked by President Jammeh to replace the sacked former chairman, Gibril J Roberts. Thus, opposition parties and independent observers have cast doubt on the election body’s impartiality.

Election observers have always pronounced Gambian elections to be free and fair, even if it they have not seemed to be so.

“Commonwealth Expert Team will observe the presidential elections due to take place on November 24, 2011 in The Gambia, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma announced on Thursday. The Team, which has been constituted at the invitation of the IEC, and following a recent high-level political assessment mission to The Gambia led by Deputy Secretary-General Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, arrived in the Gambian capital of Banjul on Monday.

What’s next?

The campaign has been largely peaceful, with no reports of clashes between rival parties or the harassment of journalists, as has been the case in previous elections. The election, too, is expected to pass peacefully.

If President Jammeh wins, a “big cabinet reshuffle” is expected. Jammeh is reportedly unhappy with some of his cabinet members, including the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Edward Gomez. In 2006, Gambian journalist “Chief” Ebrima B Manneh was arrested, and has not been seen since. Jammeh said in March 2011 that Manneh is “dead”; however, earlier this month, Gomez contradicted Jammeh when he told a local newspaper in Banjul that “‘Chief’ is alive and somewhere”.

Both Jammeh’s and Gomez’s comments raised international concerns: The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) called on Jammeh to clear the doubts over Chief’s whereabouts. However, Jammeh has since kept mute over the issue.

There are also fears that, like Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, Mr Jammeh is “likely” to cling onto power if the opposition is declared winners of the election, bringing unrest. However, a majority of observers and analysts are not forecasting this just yet.

Lamin Jahateh is a Gambian journalist and the editor and publisher of Gambia News Online.

Follow Lamin Jahateh on Twitter: @LaminJahateh

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.