Gambians vote in the first presidential elections since the fall of the dictator

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Gambians were due to go to the polls on Saturday, in the first presidential elections in the small West African nation since former dictator Yahya Jammeh fled into exile.

The vote will be closely watched as a test of the democratic transition in the country, where Jammeh ruled for 22 years after taking power in a bloodless coup in 1994.

The former autocrat was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea in January 2017 after Adama Barrow, then a relative unknown, defeated him at the polls.

President Barrow, 56, is now running for reelection and faces five other candidates.

The veteran politician Ousainou Darboe is considered the main opposition candidate.

The 73-year-old is a lawyer who has represented opponents of Jammeh and who ran for president on several occasions against the former dictator.

He also served as foreign minister and later vice president of Barrow, before resigning in 2019.

Many voters in the impoverished nation of more than two million people hope for an improvement in their standard of living.

The Gambia, a strip of land about 480 kilometers (300 miles) long, which is surrounded by Senegal, is one of the poorest countries in the world.

About half the population lives on less than $ 1.90 a day, says the World Bank.

The tourism-dependent economy in the former British colony was also affected by the Covid pandemic.

Barrow is running on a continuity ticket, pointing to infrastructure projects completed under his watch, as well as increased civil liberties.

Polls are due to open at 0800 GMT in The Gambia and will close at 1700 GMT.

Each candidate has their own ballot box at the Gambian ballot box, and voters choose their preferred politician by tossing a marble into one of the ballot boxes.

The unusual voting method is a response to the low literacy rates in the country.

The initial results of the one-round presidential elections could be announced on Sunday.

Jammeh’s Legacy

Questions about Jammeh’s continuing role in politics and his possible return from exile have been central issues in the run-up to the elections.

The 56-year-old former dictator has also tried to sway the vote, calling for him to address rallies of supporters during the campaign period.

Jammeh retains significant political support in The Gambia.

Another political arena, however, is pushing for criminal charges to be brought against Jammeh for alleged abuses committed under his rule.

Barrow established a truth commission to investigate the alleged abuses after taking office.

Before the hearings ended in May, he heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses about state-sanctioned death squads, witch hunts and forced false cures on AIDS patients, among other abuses.

The commission recommended that the government file criminal charges in November, in a final report it delivered to Barrow without making it known to the public.

The names of the officials against whom charges were recommended were also not released.

However, the criminal charges are politically sensitive given Jammeh’s monitoring.

There is also growing concern about Barrow’s enthusiasm for the prosecutions, despite previous rhetoric that was harsh on Jammeh.

In September, for example, Barrow’s NPP party announced a pact with Jammeh’s APRC, in a controversial move that was seen as an electoral ploy.

Jammeh said the decision was made without his knowledge and that his supporters have formed a rival party. But human rights groups fear the pact will diminish the chances of a trial.

(AFP)