Gambians will vote in an election Friday — the first since a devastating political crisis in 2016, sparked by a failed coup that created weeks of bloody unrest.
Supporters of President Adama Barrow — who was elected two years ago in a peaceful vote after the coup — say it is vital to hold elections as soon as possible, avoiding a return to the violence of the coup era.
The National Electoral Commission (NEC) is recommending that voters choose Barrow as president and opposition leader Ousainou Darboe as prime minister.
They are competing to lead a country that was formerly part of the United Kingdom but voted in 2016 to leave the Union of Commonwealth (U.K.) nations.
Gambia first democratic transfer of power
The country has not had a democratic transfer of power since it gained independence from Britain in 1965. The last poll was in 1994, and its constitution says new presidents must be elected within 180 days of the previous election.
Those deadlines are fast approaching, with political parties saying the delays caused by legal battles and other delays, have meant voters have been denied their democratic right to choose their leader.
Worse still, some people say, the limited access to the polls and the absence of a free media in Gambia have put a great deal of pressure on citizens and, in some cases, inspired violence.
A group of people invaded a polling station in the village of Dauda on December 14 to take away campaign posters belonging to the government’s political opponents, reportedly a deliberate attempt to disrupt and discourage voting.
The incident came just days after United Nations envoy Fatou Bensouda announced she was referring the situation to the International Criminal Court over concerns for the conduct of the election.
This is particularly worrying, given how critical stability in Gambia has been to efforts to get the world and her own government to put pressure on The Gambia to comply with the ICC’s arrest warrant against President Yahya Jammeh.
Jammeh seized power in 1994 and was accused of abusing human rights and doing nothing to fight the spread of radical Islam, even as he pocketed millions of dollars in tax revenue.
After the December 2016 coup, the then U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights, Petter Alleson, said “the result of the political crisis appears to have also dragged the country into a continuing cycle of violence and turmoil.”
Many in the region believe Jammeh has continued to exert influence from his exile in Equatorial Guinea.
Already, the U.S. State Department has said its new approach to dealing with The Gambia — now divided into two — would not involve military intervention but there has been some concern that this could change under a new administration.
While Darboe and Barrow have said the elections should be held as soon as possible, neither has indicated when they would call for new polls. It is not clear whether elections can be held before the end of this year or if a legislative session and the passage of laws necessary to hold them will be delayed.
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