The Gambia bans international calls and internet as voters go to polls
2 December 2016
The internet, international phone calls and demonstrations have been banned in the Gambia as voters go to the polls for an election that poses the first real threat to President Yahya Jammeh after more than two decades in power.
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Jammeh faces unprecedented opposition after a coalition of parties agreed to unite behind a single opposition candidate. Businessman Adama Barrow fired up voters in the past two weeks, the only period allowed for campaigning before the poll.
But the controls on communications and pre-emptive ban on protests are fuelling fears of voting day fraud and worries that there could be violence in its aftermath.
Gambia’s unique election method involves voters placing a marble in a coloured drum representing their chosen candidate. Nearly 900,000 people are eligible to vote at 1,400 polling stations across the small west African country.
The Gambian leader, who has vowed to rule for a billion years and won the previous election with nearly three-quarters of votes, says another victory is all but assured with divine intervention. He refused to answer questions about whether he would concede if he lost.
“We will win the biggest landslide this country has ever seen. If I wasn’t confident we would win, I wouldn’t have voted,” he told journalists as he headed back to an armoured vehicle after casting his vote at a cricket ground in the capital, Banjul.
Local observers said they had been unable to track polling stations because of the internet outage, as they were planning to get results by WhatsApp. Activist Jeggan Grey-Johnson called the outages a “deliberate attempt by the incumbent to control any sort of information sharing”.
There are a few African Union observers at the election, but none from the European Union or the west African regional bloc, Ecowas.
Connections may not be restored until Sunday, a security source told Reuters, although results are expected early on Friday morning. That could thwart any opposition attempts to contest the outcome or organise challenges.
Governments in Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Uganda have previously severed internet connections around election day in order to boost control. Through a nationwide shutdown of the internet and text messaging, the government slowed down the momentum that had built during the campaign, culminating in rallies on Tuesday night that attracted thousands of people.
The military was out in full force in central Banjul on Thursday and the streets of tumbledown colonial-era buildings were empty.
“This election comes at a very tense moment,” said Momodou Bah, president of ProGambia, a team of local volunteer observers. “There’s a strong atmosphere and demonstrations.”
The Gambia is dependent on tourism and mostly subsistence agriculture, with nearly half the population below the poverty line. Thousands of young people risk the dangerous journey across the Sahara and over the Mediterranean to Europe each year, with the goalkeeper of the national women’s football team the most recent casualty.
Barrow has promised to revive the economy, end human rights abuses and even step down three years into an official five-year term, to boost democracy.
The country’s youth, desperate for jobs, largely literate and armed with information from apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook, have been galvanised by his message and the possibility of change.