Gam­bians head to the polls amid in­ter­net black­out

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Worldwide -

GAM­BIAN Pres­i­dent Yahya Jam­meh faces the big­gest threat to his 22-year rule as the 880 000 Gam­bians el­i­gi­ble to vote head to the polls fol­low­ing two weeks of un­prece­dented ral­lies by an en­er­gised op­po­si­tion.

The coun­try’s 1 400 polling sta­tions opened at 08:00 yes­ter­day for an elec­tion over­shad­owed by an in­ter­net black­out, a protest ban and ac­cu­sa­tions of vote rig­ging.

The winner will serve a five-year term in Gam­bia, a tiny for­mer Bri­tish colony in west Africa that oc­cu­pies a nar­row sliver of land sur­rounded by French-speak­ing Sene­gal.

Jam­meh is run­ning for a fifth term in of­fice with his rul­ing Al­liance for Pa­tri­otic Re­ori­en­ta­tion and Con­struc­tion (APRC).

He faces pre­vi­ously un­known es­tate agent, Adama Bar­row, cho­sen as a flag­bearer by seven Gam­bian po­lit­i­cal par­ties and an in­de­pen­dent can­di­date who have joined forces for the first time to form a coali­tion with un­prece­dented sup­port.

If Bar­row were to win — a tall or­der both in terms of votes and the like­li­hood of Jam­meh giv­ing up power — he would likely serve a three-year term at the head of a tran­si­tional re­form govern­ment.

A third can­di­date, for­mer rul­ing party MP Mama Kan­deh, is also stand­ing for the Gam­bian Demo­cratic Congress (GDC).

At his fi­nal rally on Tues­day night, Jam­meh said he was look­ing for­ward to ramp­ing up devel­op­ment in a coun­try that “will move faster than it has in 22 years”, but he also warned that protests over yes­ter­day’s re­sult would not be tol­er­ated.

Gam­bia’s unique vot­ing sys­tem, which sees cit­i­zens vote by drop­ping a mar­ble into a coloured drum for their can­di­date, could not be rigged, he added, mean­ing “there is no rea­son for any­body to protest”.

Rights group Amnesty In­ter­na­tional urged the au­thor­i­ties to en­sure that the elec­tion and post-elec­toral pe­riod “are held in a cli­mate that is free from vi­o­lence and which fully re­spects the right of all peo­ple to freely ex­press their views”.

“The thou­sands of Gam­bians who have taken part in ral­lies for all can­di­dates over the last two weeks is a re­mark­able sign of how pre­cious the right to free­dom of ex­pres­sion is in a coun­try where it has been so rarely per­mit­ted,” said Steve Cock­burn, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s Deputy Re­gional Direc­tor for West and Cen­tral Africa. Gam­bia elec­tion: Hu­man rights groups fear rig­ging “But it is cru­cial that these glim­mers of free­dom do not end af­ter the votes are counted, and this is no time for com­pla­cency. “Dozens of peo­ple re­main be­hind bars in Gam­bia sim­ply for ex­press­ing their opin­ion, and jour­nal­ists, hu­man rights de­fend­ers and civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions still fear reprisals for speak­ing out.”

In­ter­net was down from around 8.15PM on the eve of the vote fol­low­ing warn­ings of an elec­tion day black­out from the US em­bassy.

Pop­u­lar pri­vate voice and mes­sag­ing apps such as What­sapp, Skype and Viber are un­reach­able with­out a Vir­tual Pri­vate Net­work (VPN), soft­ware many Gam­bians use to work around the prob­lem.

The op­po­si­tion re­lies on mes­sag­ing ap­pli­ca­tions and texts to or­gan­ise mo­bile ral­lies that have seen roads blocked re­peat­edly over the last week around Banjul as demon­stra­tions out­grow planned venues.

Jam­meh seized power in a 1994 coup and has tar­geted op­po­nents and sev­eral of his own min­is­ters in re­cent years, while sur­viv­ing mul­ti­ple at­tempts to re­move him from power. — AFP

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