Adama Barrow: The Gambia tests its young democracy with close elections | International

Dozens of cars and vans with people perched on top wearing yellow T-shirts and caps, the color of the opposition candidate, rush down the main avenue of Banjul. At the Black Café bar, experts and citizens discuss politics and development in a debate broadcast on private television as a thousand young people proudly prepare to be observers in the elections. After 23 years of dictatorship and five of the fall of the autocrat Yahya Jammeh thanks to a military intervention by the countries of the region, the Gambia celebrates its first free and democratic presidential elections this Saturday with six candidates in the running, a historic appointment for this small country African who aspires to consolidate his newly won freedom.

“There is enormous enthusiasm”, assures John Charles Njai, head of the platform of civil society organizations Tango, “people are thirsty for democracy and elections are the best way to participate. Five years ago there was fear, you were risking going to jail or life if you risked speaking. Today everyone thinks, debates, a lot has been achieved in terms of democracy ”. The economic and social problems have not disappeared in one fell swoop and the necessary reforms and reconciliation are unfinished business, but the Gambia has changed. “Candidates campaign and propose. Now it’s time to decide, ”adds Njai.

Although the elections are very open and the Gambian electoral system, with a simple majority and great transparency, facilitates fair play and, therefore, that there may be surprises, of the six candidates, all men, two start as favorites. The first is undoubtedly Adama Barrow, the current president. At the age of 56, this businessman from the real estate sector came to power in January 2017 after surprisingly winning the December 2016 elections against the dictator Jammeh, who refused to accept the results and had to be evicted after a military intervention by the countries in the region led by Senegalese troops.

Barrow had appeared at the head of an unprecedented opposition coalition in the Gambia (2,416,000 inhabitants), which helped him to victory. During his tenure, he had invaluable support from the international community, concerned about the fragility of the democratic transition: the European Union alone raised some 1,500 million dollars (1,326 million euros) in 2018 to support the Gambian government in its development plans. . This economic injection, to a large extent channeled into projects that created employment among young people, made it possible to improve the living conditions of many Gambians and attenuate the wave of migration to Europe, today at low hours compared to the situation of five years ago.

Precisely the management of migration has caused a recent clash between the Gambia and the EU after Brussels punished this African country with visa restrictions for not admitting repatriation flights of its citizens from European soil. The truth is that the Banjul authorities have authorized such deportations in the past, but this year, with the elections just around the corner and as it is a measure that generates social unrest and could electorally punish President Barrow, they decided paralyze them. The Gambia is the sub-Saharan country with the most nationals pending return in Europe, some 12,000, which gives an idea of ​​the vigor of the Gambian exodus in recent years.

During this time, dozens of Gambians from the diaspora returned to a country where opportunities to invest in sectors such as tourism arose again. It is true that the covid-19 frustrated many expectations, but the works and renovations of hotels flourish in Banjul in the confidence of better times. However, not everything is rosy. “The reform of the Constitution is a great pending task,” says journalist Babucar Ceesay, director of the newspaper The Monitor, “As well as the renewal of the Armed Forces sector.” A Magna Carta approved in times of the dictatorship and an Army that still includes many commanders who collaborated in the harsh repression of Jammeh’s times are threats that continue to weigh on the minds of Gambians.

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The great candidate to prevent a second term for Barrow is the veteran opposition leader, human rights lawyer and charismatic reference in the fight against the Ousainou Darboe dictatorship. At 73 years old and with a fragile appearance, sitting in a chair in the center of a decorated room in his residence, he patiently attends journalists from all over the world who these days come to interview him. “We have waited for this moment for a long time, but I am confident of my victory. I have the physical strength and the mental capacity to lead this country ”, he assures MRT, thus trying to clear up the doubts that run in Gambia about his state of health.

Darboe, who could not appear in the 2016 elections because he was in prison, leads the Gambia’s best backbone party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), a powerful political machine that has shown its muscle during the campaign and that has a great implantation in the capital, the most decisive fiefdom of the elections. The other candidates are Mama Kandé, who obtained a respectable 17% of the vote in 2016 and who has the explicit support of the dictator Jammeh from his exile in Equatorial Guinea; the socialist Halifa Sallah, with great prestige in the Gambia for his honesty and long struggle against the dictatorship; and the independents Abdoulie Ebrima Jammeh and Essa Fall, the latter one of the lawyers who headed the Truth, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC) that investigated the crimes of the dictatorship.

With a census of 960,000 people, the elections seem open. “No one is going to win with more than 40% of the vote,” says Njai, “it’s going to be very close. But the most important thing is not that, but that everything passes in peace, that the candidates respect the results proclaimed by the electoral commission and that there are no overflows in the celebrations. This is a people of peace and we have strengthened our democracy in these five years to get to this moment ”. The 1,500 polling stations planned throughout the country open this Saturday at eight in the morning and the results are expected for the same Sunday.

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