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Gambian voters ignore threats and unseat Yahya Jammeh

December 2, 2016

Voters in the tiny nation of Gambia appear to have unseated their president of more than two decades, who had pledged to rule for “a billion years”, an unexpected result after a year of elections that have cast doubt on the state of democracy in Africa.

The Gambian electoral commission on Friday declared that Adama Barrow, the main opposition challenger to incumbent leader Yahya Jammeh, was the winner of Thursday’s poll. It said on state television that the businessman won 45.5 per cent of the vote against Mr Jammeh’s 36.7 per cent

Mr Jammeh, who took power in a coup 22 years ago, has not yet conceded defeat, although the electoral commission chief told journalists in the capital Banjul that he expected him to do so.

One of Africa’s longest serving and most repressive and eccentric leaders, Mr Jammeh had this week warned rivals not to challenge the results of the elections. He also said that “only Allah” could take the presidency from him.

If he does accept the results and leaves power peacefully the handover will be a boost for democracy in a country that has had only three heads of state since independence in 1965. There has not been a competitive or transparent poll since Mr Jammeh’s 1994 coup.

Hopes for African democracy were lifted last year following a historic transfer of power in Nigeria after tense but ultimately peaceful polls. But they were dashed again in 2016 by elections in Uganda, Gabon and Zambia. The opposition in those three votes alleged polls were rigged. Ghana, one of the most stable and mature democracies on the continent, holds presidential elections next week.

Yahya Jammeh, who sought to rule for ‘a billion years’ and said only Allah could remove him, appears to have been defeated © Reuters

Ahead of the Gambia poll, there were fears of fraud and intimidation. In recent weeks security forces arrested nearly 100 opposition activists who were holding peaceful protests.

Voters also cast their ballots amid a blackout of internet and international telephone networks which ended on Friday. But there were no immediate reports of violence after the results were announced — there were reports of some residents taking to the streets to sing and dance in celebration.

Turnout appeared to have been strong. The commission said nearly 580,000 people, out of a total of 880,000 registered voters, cast ballots.

Rights groups accuse Mr Jammeh of abuses including jailing and torturing opponents. In recent years he has threatened to decapitate gay people and ordered the arrest of hundreds of citizens on suspicion of witchcraft.

He and his supporters deny abuses and accuse western governments of meddling. Gambia joined several other African nations recently, including South Africa, by withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, accusing the body of focusing on prosecuting Africans.

Mr Barrow succeeded in galvanising discontent with poverty and repression in the nation of 2m people. Despite the threat of arrest, large crowds turned out in recent weeks to show their support for the former real estate developer, who has promised to end human rights abuses and step down after three years.

About 85 per cent of Gambians live below the poverty line. Tens of thousands of citizens have fled the country in recent years, many heading for Europe.

The economy is almost entirely dependent on agriculture and tourism. Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly from the UK, visit Gambia each year to enjoy its beaches and sunny climate. However, the Ebola outbreak in the region cut tourism receipts in half in 2014-15, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Via FT