BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — Lines of voters snaked around corners outside polling stations in Gambia’s capital Saturday as the nation holds a presidential election that for the first time in decades does not include former dictator Yahya Jammeh as a candidate.
Polls opened to high turnout, with many people lining up at the capital’s Independence Stadium before sunrise. Nearly 1 million voters were expected to drop marbles into one of six ballot bins, each adorned with the face and name of a candidate.
The candidates include incumbent President Adama Barrow, who defeated Jammeh in 2016 while running as the candidate for an opposition coalition.
Barrow’s challengers are former mentor and head opposition leader Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party; Mama Kandeh of Gambia Democratic Congress; Halifa Sallah of People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism; Abdoulie Ebrima Jammeh of the National Unity Party; and Essa Mbye Faal, former lead counsel of Gambia’s truth commission, who is running under an independent ticket.
Touring polling stations across the Serrekunda area, Independent Electoral Commission Chair Alieu Mommar Njie expressed satisfaction with the voting process. He said election results would be announced by Monday.
“There is no system in the world better than us,” Mommar told reporters.
All the presidential candidates have vowed to strengthen the country’s tourism-dependent economy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic so fewer Gambians feel compelled to travel the dangerous migration route to Europe.
While the 2016 election that removed Jammeh from power after 22 years saw Gambians go from fear to elation, many are still not satisfied with the progress the nation has made.
“Since President Barrow came to power, the prices of food commodities kept rising. The average Gambian lives in poverty, so we want a candidate to be elected to address this problem,” Kebba Gaye, 23, said in the town of Wellingara. “We youths want to elect a leader that will respect and value our votes. A leader that will create employment for us (young people), road constructions, as well as build quality hospitals across the country.”
In a nearby neighborhood, Marietou Bojang, 24, agreed on the need for change, saying people don’t have enough to eat.
“I am voting because myself and other women are suffering silently. A bag of rice has drastically gone up,” she told The Associated Press.
She also complained of corruption, saying not enough has been done to address the issues in government.
Many Gambians want certainty that the new leaders will bring the tiny West African nation of about 2.4 million toward peace and justice.
Despite Jammeh’s departure the nation continues to suffer from the effects of his rule, including rights abuses and funds taken from state coffers.
“As a country, we cannot heal without justice. We cannot have reconciliation without justice,” Gambia Bar Association President Salieu Taal told The Associated Press.
Jammeh left Gambia in 2017. His two-decade rule was marked by arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and summary executions that were revealed through dramatic testimony during Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission hearings that lasted for years.
Last week, the commission handed its 17-volume report to President Barrow, urging him to deliver on expectations in ensuring that perpetrators of human rights violations are prosecuted. Barrow said he would ensure justice is done.
Still, a Barrow reelection is uncertain as many Gambians feel betrayal after his National People’s Party reached a deal with the top figures of the former ruling party, despite Jammeh’s split with that party.
Omar Amadou Jallow, an emblematic figure of the People’s Progressive Party, threw his weight behind Barrow.
“Let’s vote and return home peacefully,” he told reporters Saturday. “This election is going to be transparent.”
Jallow said party supporters should not be fighting each other, calling on Gambians to remain open.
“We are equal under the law. This is democracy. We want peace in this country,” he added.
Links to Jammeh are not only an issue for the current president, however. Opposition candidate Kandeh has been supported strongly by a breakaway political faction that Jammeh formed during his exile in Equatorial Guinea.
While Kandeh has maintained silence about Jammeh’s possible return to Gambia, his allies are unequivocally saying that Jammeh would come back if they emerge victorious from the election.
Jammeh, who seized power in 1994 in a bloodless coup, was voted out of office in 2016. After initially agreeing to step down, Jammeh resisted, and a six-week crisis saw neighboring West African countries prepare to send in troops to stage a military intervention. Jammeh was forced into exile and fled to Equatorial Guinea.
Of the other candidates, Sallah and Darboe are established politicians, but they face challenges from newcomers such as Faal and Ebrima Jammeh, who are making waves in urban areas.
Gambians, used to violence surrounding polls, worry about a possible confrontation between Barrow and Darboe supporters, as the years have seen a great divide between the two leaders who were once close.
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. AP reporter Mustapha Jallow in Banjul contributed.