Gambian leader expects landslide in criticised vote

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Gambian President Yahya Jammeh predicted a comfortable victory in a poll which West African regional bloc ECOWAS said has been marked by the intimidation of opposition groups and voters.

Mainland Africa’s smallest country is a popular tourist spot known for palm-fringed tropical beaches but also for widespread allegations of human rights abuses and crippling poverty.
“I am confident to win with a landslide majority,” the 46-year-old former army coup leader told reporters as he voted in the capital Banjul, Reuters report.
“People know what I did for the Gambia for the past 17 years in terms of development. The British who were here for 400 years never did that,” he said of Gambia’s former colonial ruler whose presence was established in the 16th century.

Nearly 800,000 Gambians are registered to vote in the election pitting Jammeh against two opposition rivals.

Voters are given one marble each, which they drop into a drum corresponding to the candidate of their choice. The marble strikes a bell inside the drum, preventing multiple voting — an archaic method of voting devised by colonialists.

Jammeh, whom opponents accuse of persecuting them, said there would be no coalitions with the opposition.
“The opposition do not wish well for this country. They travel the world to tarnish its name. They do not want peace, they want trouble. And I am ready for them after the election,” he warned in a message on state radio.

He earlier said no violence would be tolerated.
“I will vote for Jammeh — during his tenure of office there have been lots of developments. We should give him another mandate of five years to finish his projects,” said 34-year-old shopkeeper Momadou Jallow.
“I am coming to vote and pray for change because life is very hard,” said Binta Jah, a housewife voting in the coastal town of Serekunda.
“The average Gambian cannot afford a bag of rice,” she said. A sack of rice costs about $30 in a country where average income is $1 a day.

Turnout was brisk in Banjul and its suburbs. A number of polling stations remained open past the normal closing time of 4.00 p.m. (1600 GMT) to allow those still queuing to cast their vote. First results could emerge later on Thursday.

Many analysts believe Jammeh’s election to a new five-year term is a foregone conclusion after 17 years of rule that began with a 1994 coup and have been marked by lethal crackdowns on protests, mass arrests of opponents and military reshuffles.

Regional body ECOWAS, in an unusually strong criticism of a member state, said on Tuesday it would not send a mission to observe the poll “because the preparations and political environment … are adjudged by the commission not to be conducive for the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls.”

Its fact-finding mission found “an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power … and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation”.

The head of Gambia’s electoral body, Alhagie Mustapha Carayol, rejected the ECOWAS conclusions. An African Union delegation will be present to observe voting.
“ECOWAS is painting a false picture,” he said. “Anything happens to the Gambia, ECOWAS is responsible.”

DIVINE INTERVENTION

Gambia’s election follows other recent polls in West Africa, a region that has struggled with democracy, including elections in Ivory Coast which led to a brief civil war, and smoother ones in Guinea, Liberia and Niger.

One of Africa’s most colourful rulers, Jammeh announced in 2007 he had a herbal concoction that cured AIDS, but only on Thursdays, a claim derided by international health experts.

While United States sees the Gambian government as an ally against militants and drugs trafficking, rights groups have repeatedly accused Jammeh of stifling dissent and free press.

He declared in July neither a vote nor a coup could oust him, saying he ruled thanks to divine intervention. He has courted controversy with reported threats to human rights groups and a 2008 order for all homosexuals to leave Gambia.

Gambia is a sliver of land along the Gambia River between northern and southern Senegal.

Neighbouring Senegal and Guinea have both in the past accused him of trying to de-stabilise them, while Gambia’s ties with Taiwan mean it is one of a handful of African states which do not currently have diplomatic relations with China.



Jammeh, who has won all three elections since the coup, is running against Hamat Bah, 51, representing a four-party alliance, and Canadian-trained attorney Ousainou Darboe, 63.