Rule of ‘bil­lion-year’ Gam­bia pres­i­dent un­der threat

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Gam­bia’s pres­i­dent once said he would gov­ern the coun­try for a bil­lion years if God willed it. But vot­ers may de­liver an upset Thurs­day af­ter years of eco­nomic hard­ship that have pushed thou­sands of young peo­ple to at­tempt the per­ilous Mediter­ranean cross­ing to Europe.

Yahya Jam­meh will face the big­gest chal­lenge to his 22-year rule as a united op­po­si­tion and frus­tra­tion over the econ­omy dom­i­nate the west African na­tion’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Around 880,000 Gam­bians are ex­pected at the polls from 0800 GMT on Thurs­day in the tiny for­mer Bri­tish colony, a nar­row sliver of land mostly sur­rounded by French-speak­ing Sene­gal.

Op­po­si­tion ral­lies on an un­prece­dented scale have gal­va­nized nor­mally ap­a­thetic sec­tions of so­ci­ety-es­pe­cially the youn­gafter the gov­ern­ment’s re­pres­sive tac­tics back­fired badly. “Gam­bians, this is the only chance we have to re­move him from power, if we fail to do so we’ll bite our fin­gers (re­gret it). This is the only chance we have. We should uti­lize it to the max­i­mum,” op­po­si­tion leader Adama Bar­row said on Fri­day.

Ob­servers from the Euro­pean Union and the Eco­nomic Com­mu­nity of West African States will not at­tend the vote. The In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral Com­mis­sion de­clared that it owed “al­le­giance to no­body but the peo­ple of this coun­try”. African Union ob­servers are ex­pected to over­see it, how­ever.

‘You can­not ex­press your view’

Sev­eral top of­fi­cials of the largest op­po­si­tion group, the United Demo­cratic Party (UDP), were jailed for hold­ing a peace­ful protest in April over the death in cus­tody of youth leader Solo San­deng. The in­ci­dent led all of The Gam­bia’s op­po­si­tion par­ties-ex­cept one-to form a coali­tion around Bar­row, a pre­vi­ously un­known busi­ness­man.

Bar­row’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence has proven to be a virtue, as he is un­bur­dened with party po­lit­i­cal bag­gage and is seen as a fig­ure­head for the in­tel­lec­tu­als, lawyers and en­trepreneurs who would likely join his cabi­net if he won. “(Bar­row’s) chances are bright be­cause Gam­bians suf­fered a lot in the last five years,” Mbe­mbe Kuy­ateh, a 25year-old stu­dent, told AFP in the cap­i­tal city Ban­jul. “Po­lit­i­cally you can­not ex­press your view, and eco­nom­i­cally peo­ple are dy­ing in the Back Way (mi­grant route to Europe) due to this eco­nomic cri­sis.”

Gam­bians make up the largest group per capita of ar­rivals to Italy by the Mediter­ranean, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion. Jam­meh said dur­ing the cam­paign that he was best placed to halt the ex­o­dus, telling sup­port­ers: “Those who do not want our chil­dren to end up in refugee camps, they know who to vote for.”

The pres­i­dent, who is seek­ing a fifth term, still has strong sup­port de­spite hav­ing faced mul­ti­ple at­tempts to re­move him from power since he be­came leader in a blood­less coup in 1994 aged just 29.

The for­mer army lieu­tenant is best known abroad for his claims to have per­son­ally de­vel­oped cures for HIV, in­fer­til­ity and seizures, which he ad­min­is­ters per­son­ally to cit­i­zens. A de­vout Mus­lim, Jam­meh is never seen with­out a Ko­ran and prayer beads in hand, dressed in bil­low­ing white robes.

‘I’m bet­ter than any­one’

How­ever, his unusual ap­proach to rul­ing has alien­ated for­eign in­vestors and African lead­ers alike, de­spite some im­pres­sive progress in the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment over the past two decades. Jam­meh has taken The Gam­bia out of the Com­mon­wealth and moved to leave the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court. He also railed against United Na­tions Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon for ask­ing him to in­ves­ti­gate deaths in cus­tody.

Jam­meh’s se­cu­rity ser­vices are reg­u­larly ac­cused by the op­po­si­tion and rights groups of tor­ture, ar­bi­trary de­ten­tion and in­tim­i­da­tion. For Jam­meh’s die-hard sup­port­ers, he rep­re­sents na­tional pride and sta­bil­ity in a re­gion plagued by ji­hadists and civil strife. “He brought elec­tric­ity, good roads... be­fore you couldn’t get a ve­hi­cle to go to our vil­lage,” ex­plained car­pen­ter Lamin Mendy, 47.

Sev­eral sup­port­ers gave Libya as an ex­am­ple of what could hap­pen if a long­time leader was re­moved in the hope of pos­i­tive change. Sig­nif­i­cant progress has been made in the last 20 years in im­prov­ing lit­er­acy and child mor­tal­ity rates, and the pres­i­dent has in the last year banned child mar­riage and fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion.

But 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion live in poverty, and a third sur­vive on $1.25 (1.20 euro) or less a day, ac­cord­ing to the UN. Jam­meh re­mains con­fi­dent of be­ing re­turned to power, telling a re­cent rally, “I’m not say­ing I’m the best, but I’m bet­ter than any­one you would ever have in this coun­try”. —AFP

WELLINGARA, Gam­bia: Sup­port­ers of Adama Bar­row, the flag-bearer of the coali­tion of the seven op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Gam­bia dance at the venue of a po­lit­i­cal rally on Novem­ber 28, 2016. —AFP

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