Gambia’s Leader Vowed to Rule for a Billion Years. A Vote Will Test That.

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BANJUL, Gambia — Since he took over the presidency of tiny Gambia more than two decades ago, President Yahya Jammeh has made headlines by threatening to decapitate gay people, carrying out a deadly witch hunt and claiming to cure AIDS with little more than a prayer and a banana.

On Thursday, voters will decide whether to reinstall Mr. Jammeh, who once said he intended to stay in power for a billion years.

“Allah elected me, and only Allah can remove me,” he declared on state television in November.

But a recent surge of enthusiasm for the opposition coalition candidate, Adama Barrow, has put into question the outcome of the election and prompted fears of instability and violence in a country known for its repressive leadership.

Thousands have turned out for rallies in favor of the president. But unusually large crowds have also spilled into the streets for opposition rallies where people holler chants against Mr. Jammeh. Women, children and imams have joined the gatherings, unlike those in years past. At one rally this week, young people dragged by a rope dolls bearing the face of Mr. Jammeh.

An old woman belted out, “We are tired!” The crowd joined in with shouts of “We need change!”

Africa is home to several so-called leaders for life. Mr. Jammeh, who took power in a coup in 1994, is among the continent’s most eccentric. Human rights groups say he is also among the most repressive.

In past weeks, security forces have arrested more than 90 opposition activists for participating in peaceful protests. Thirty activists — including the leader of the largest opposition party, the United Democratic Party — have been prosecuted and sentenced this year to three-year prison terms. Two other opposition protesters have died in custody in the past year, including the opposition party’s national organizing secretary, Solo Sandeng, who was beaten to death at the country’s National Intelligence Agency in April, according to an Amnesty International report.

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Throughout his tenure, Mr. Jammeh has arrested and tortured journalists and political activists, some of whom have disappeared. More than 20 journalists have been forced to leave the country since the beginning of his rule, and he has shut down opposition newspapers and radio stations. The activity has created a climate of self-censorship, with critics of his government afraid to speak out.

Yet Mr. Barrow, 51, until recently the leader of the country’s main opposition party and its chief financier, as well as the owner of a real estate company, has continued to campaign, boasting of support from various communities and even from security forces. The country’s Independent Electoral Commission set rules for campaigning, and so far rallies that have attracted large crowds have been peaceful.

To secure his spot as a leading candidate, Mr. Barrow overcame major divisions within the coalition. Some analysts have questioned whether he can rally enough support to overcome Mr. Jammeh in an election from which the president has barred European Union observers.

“It has already turned out difficult to appoint a coalition leader, which raises the question as to whether the parties are willing to cooperate or are more interested in defending their own interests,” said Marloes Janson, a reader in West African anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Mr. Jammeh has a reputation for charting his own course, regardless of regional or international criticism.

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He has made Islam an important component of his presidency. Last year he declared Gambia an Islamic Republic, in a move to strengthen his ties with Arab states after the European Union withdrew about $14 million in funding for the nation. He has used the religion to justify a policing of morality that included a crackdown on homosexuality and supposed sorcery, resulting in deaths of those accused.

His administration has repeatedly failed to cooperate with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which is based in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. In October, the country announced its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, making it the third African country to pull out after South Africa and Burundi. A Gambian minister accused the court of prosecuting only black people and has called it the “International Caucasian Court,” even though one of the court’s prosecutors, Fatou Bensouda, is Gambian and a former presidential adviser. The president has barred many aid groups from operating in the country.

“Yahya Jammeh is where he is because it is easy for him to be there,” said Kamissa Camara, a political expert and founder of the Sahel Strategy Forum, a think tank that analyzes events in West and Central Africa. “He can get away with whatever he does there. Nothing scares him.”

With a population of just under two million, Gambia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the region. Young people have fled the country in search of work in Europe, risking their lives on a dangerous voyage through the desert and across the sea.

“They have no future here,” said Isatou Touray, a member of the opposition coalition. “We are encouraging young people to stay and help liberate this country, and we are happy that more people are joining our campaign.”

Mr. Barrow has pledged to offer free basic education, affordable higher education and affordable health care even in rural villages, and has said he would end the imprisonment of government critics.

Mr. Jammeh, in a move to foster relations with young people and to discourage them from taking the risky voyage to Europe, has promised to introduce empowerment programs for youths, including free university education starting in 2018.

Some Gambians predict that the coming election and its outcome will mimic the past. The Economic Community of West African States, a regional group that promotes economic integration, has refused to be part of the election process, saying the country lacks “a friendly environment for free and fair elections.”

As voters prepare to cast ballots, the opposition coalition says it is not worried only about winning the presidential elections, but also about what the future holds for them in Gambia.

“Right now our lives are at risk,” Ms. Touray said. “Because of the force we have formed in this campaign, we don’t know what will happen after the elections. We might get arrested after the elections, or maybe not. Only God knows.”

Source: New York Times

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