Polls confirmed today – Friday - that incumbent President Yahya Jammeh, leader of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), has been re-elected for a fourth term in office, allowing him to continue his 17 year rule in Gambia. According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the president took 72% of the vote in a landslide victory.
There has been much speculation about the fairness of the elections. ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States – announced on Wednesday that it would not be sending observers to monitor the polls because it deemed the preparations and political environment as not “conducive for free, fair and transparent polls”.
This surprise announcement came before the elections had even taken place, and is indicative of the wide-reaching challenges facing the political process, chiefly the control Jammeh exerts over his electorate via intimidation, bribery and state control of the media. Additionally, the neutrality of supposedly independent institutions, such as the IEC and the military, has been questioned - it is widely believed that most in these institutions support, or even actively campaign for, Jammeh. The suppression of opposition parties has only added to the challenges for establishing a democratic election process.
Despite all this, it seems that the voting has accurately delivered Jammeh as President. The leader of the African Union (AU) poll observer mission, Samuel Fonkam, spoke of being impressed with the organisation of the poll and the conduct of voters. The voting process for the election involved voters, many of whom are illiterate, placing clear glass marbles into coloured drums, which then had to be tallied by electoral commission officials.
Previous elections in Gambia have been widely condemned for vote rigging, with various different methods employed to ascertain votes. One opposition party supporter told Think Africa Press that in the past a vote could be bought for 500d (roughly $15). But while vote-buying seems to be a thing of the past, other tactics abound. One ploy the current administration exploits is the courting of village elders – making promises and, I am told, throwing lavish parties. In return, the elders are expected to promote the party and encourage people to vote for Jammeh.
Outside the capital, Banjul, where a lack of roads, limited healthcare and intermittent or non-existent electricity make life hard, the mood is surprisingly upbeat. The president, having claimed he would not campaign, is heading upcountry for various rallies.
Supposedly, Jammeh’s mother insisted he go and thank the population for their support. I am in a large village, waiting for the president’s motorcade to come past. The children have been corralled, forced to stand well away from the danger of the road-side. The village gathers, waiting excitedly on either side of the road. Make-shift green flags made from torn-up fabric are pinned to poles, posters bearing the President’s face are hung on trees, and each time another car screams past, covering the crowd in dust, the children behind me let out a huge cheer.
Those who support Jammeh provide tangible reasons for doing so: they point to new bridges, a hospital, a school, agricultural development. Despite being the most underdeveloped region of the country, people are complementary about the president’s actions here. More pertinently, they do not see these as actions made by the country’s leader but by a philanthropic celebrity, many failing to realise that these basic resources should be funded by the state. Those I speak with often describe the president’s “generosity”. Jammeh does his upmost to perpetuate this view. His name appears on bridges, at the entrances to hospitals and schools: as all the t-shirts say, a vote for him is a vote for “rapid socio-economic development in peace”.
In this particular village, people are told that a vote for Jammeh will secure them agricultural equipment. “I love that man. He has the people and the children’s in his heart,” one supporter tells Think Africa Press. This voter, along with his friend, is actively involved in procuring the support of the village. Most of the campaigning is done with a modicum of calm, but some entails a sense of intense patriotism and urgency. Standing on the roadside, they undertake an enthused roadside march which is at odds with the generally relaxed and celebratory nature of the occasion. Some affectionate sniggers follow. But it seems Jammeh’s ability to source enthusiastic young people to work on his campaign is strong.
The following day, a new colour adorns the side of the road: yellow. The colour signifies the United Democratic Party, the party of Ousainou Darboe. The number of supporters is fewer but they are more vocal: this is less about celebrity and more about politics. The most incisive point comes from a young boy. His parents are UDP supporters and he has followed their lead. I ask him why he would not support Jammeh. His answer is clear and concise: “Everything is difficult with Jammeh. Rice and other foods are too expensive. When Darboe is elected everyone will be free.”
It is difficult for the opposition parties to contest the elections. The official campaign period has been shrunk to 11 days, which represents the only time opposition parties get – limited - access to the state-run media. The time is considered too short for effective campaigning, especially since Jammeh is able to continually promote his presidency throughout the year.
In the West, the Gambian diaspora has been vocal about their dislike for the president. Yet, the influence from abroad has not managed to infiltrate the mass vote. And as the ECOWAS report indicates, the problems in Gambia are not necessarily with the actual vote placing, but more with the electoral and political process.
More educated members of the population, particularly those with access to external media outlets, are aware of the president’s faults, but there is a malaise in terms of a viable opposition which people believe could run the country. In Banjul, a successful businessman tells Think Africa Press that he will be voting for Jammeh. “The others are just useless,” he explains. A young Gambian living in London is non-committal when I ask him about the country’s political situation – that is, until we are back in the UK. “I hate him [Jammeh],” he says upon his return. “Obviously, you have to be careful with your words while there [Gambia]. People tell me to come home and work but I don’t want to be implicated by the government. Changes are happening everywhere and it will happen there too soon.”
Two days after the initial motorcade, we are back at the roadside waiting for President Jammeh to make his return journey to Banjul. This time, some of the fanfare has gone but the children still leave school to stand in the hot sun and cheer and waving with bits of tree. We wait and wait. The children become restless and begin to bicker. Eventually, the president passes, throwing biscuits from his car as he goes. Jammeh has been given another chance, one last time to deliver. At some stage, the biscuits will no longer be enough and the bickering could take on more sinister forms. Until then, the president remains.
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