by Jennifer O'MAHONY Gambians cast their ballots Thursday in a presidential poll that poses the strongest challenge yet to Yahya Jammeh's 22-year rule, with political rivals energised by an unprecedented opposition campaign.
The first of some 880,000 eligible voters headed to polling stations despite an internet blackout imposed overnight in a nation long accused by rights groups of suppressing freedom of expression.
The winner in the three-way race will serve a five-year term in The Gambia, a tiny former British colony in west Africa which occupies a narrow sliver of land surrounded by French-speaking Senegal.
“Jammeh is my president, and he’s been doing a lot of development for this country,” said former Gambian international footballer Alhaji Momodo Nije voting at a cricket association in Banjul.
“The president himself swore on the Holy Koran that if he ever turned his back on this country God would turn against him, and I believe him,” he added.
Jammeh is running for a fifth term in office with his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
He faces previously unknown businessman Adama Barrow, chosen as a flagbearer by a group of political parties who have joined forces for the first time and won unprecedented popular support.
Before heading to vote, Barrow told AFP by phone he was confident of victory. “It’s very clear, the writing is on the wall that I’m going to win.”
A third candidate, former ruling party MP Mama Kandeh, is also standing for the Gambian Democratic Congress (GDC).
All three men are 51, born in 1965, the year The Gambia won its independence from Britain.
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 the election result would not be tolerated.
The 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.”
– ‘Tremendous’ opposition support -The Internet and phone lines went down at around 8.15 pm (2015 GMT) on the eve of the vote.
Popular private voice and messaging apps such as Whatsapp, Skype and Viber were unreachable without a Virtual Private Network (VPN), software many Gambians use to work around the problem.
The opposition has relied on messaging applications and texts to organise rallies and move around roadblocks that were set up in Banjul during the last week of campaigning.
“We are not happy. Gambians need to know what is going on. Social media is very important for this election,” opposition leader Barrow said.
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 transition reform government.
There will be no professional international observers present, diplomats have confirmed, but a small team of African Union experts will monitor events along with Banjul-based US and European delegations already present in the country.
Observers from the APRC and opposition coalition were present at several polling stations visited by AFP.
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.
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.
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