West African regional group ECOWAS said it would not send observers to Gambia’s presidential election after its fact-finding mission found signs of intimidation of the opposition and unfair access to media during the campaign.
The unusually strong statement from ECOWAS could further isolate Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, analysts said, noting he was widely criticised by rights groups over alleged abuses and that his ties with regional neighbours were under strain.
The former soldier is widely expected to secure another term at the helm of the country he has run since a 1994 coup. Gambia is popular with tourists for its tropical beaches but is regularly criticised for its rights record and press muzzling, Reuters reports.
The ECOWAS statement said a fact-finding mission had found “intimidation, 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 commission said it had informed Jammeh that it would not send an observer mission “because the preparations and political environment … are adjudged by the Commission not to be conducive for the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls”.
The statement, which was released on Wednesday, said that ECOWAS remained ready to work with Gambia to “create a level playing field for future elections”.
The campaign director of Gambia’s ruling APRC party, Lamin Kaba Bajo, said the ECOWAS decision was “unfortunate” and that the election would be conducted fairly.
“I can not see any reason why they do not want come,” Bajo, also a government minister, told Reuters. “So far the Gambia Government and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) did not receive any complaint from the opposition.”
The African Union said on Thursday it was sending a delegation of observers.
After years of criticism for being a toothless body, ECOWAS has in recent years taken a stronger stance against coups and flawed elections, notably in Niger, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
ECOWAS suspended Niger in 2009 after then-president Mamadou Tandja altered the constitution to extend his term in power, and it applied pressure on Ivory Coast’s ex-leader Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to recognize his loss in 2010 elections.
“While ECOWAS is unlikely to suspend the Gambia, the country’s institutional credentials are a source of concern and embarrassment for an increasing number of West African states,” said Samir Gadio, analyst at Standard Bank.
The move by ECOWAS may also reflect simmering political tensions between Gambia and its neighbours, analysts said.
Guinea’s President Alpha Conde has accused Gambia of being aware of a July assassination attempt against him, and Jammeh openly supported Gbagbo’s stand in Ivory Coast.
“This move (by ECOWAS) could further isolate the President of Gambia, who is one of the longest serving heads of state in the region,” said Kayode Akindele, partner at Lagos-based advisory 46 Parallels.
Jammeh is due to face two challengers in the poll but there has been little sign of opposition campaigning in the run-up to the vote and analysts say few voters have faith in the process.