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The Gambia faces test of democracy as voters go to polls.

The Gambia is facing a historic election this weekend as voters decide whether to elect their fourth president ever or stick with the third.

Africa’s smallest mainland country goes to the polls on Saturday, with the frontrunners neck and neck, in what is seen as a key test of democracy in a continent where six coups or attempted coups were recorded this year.

The incumbent, Adama Barrow, came to power in 2017 following a shock election result against Yahya Jammeh, the eccentric dictator who seized power in a 1994 coup. Jammeh ousted Dawda Jawara, who had led the country since its 1962 independence.

While Jammeh initially accepted his late 2016 loss, he then refused to step down, before eventually fleeing to exile in Equatorial Guinea. Gambia’s current government accuses Jammeh of stealing as much as $50 million (€44.3 million) before he fled, as well as luxury cars.

Barrow initially said he would serve only a transitional period of three years. In 2019 he reneged on this promise, leading to widespread protests.

Last year the party founded by Jammeh, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), entered into a formal alliance with Barrow’s party, the National People’s Party (NPP). Jammeh has explicitly said he doesn’t support this, calling Barrow “a donkey”.

Last week, Barrow came under scrutiny again after he failed to make public a report produced by the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, which has spent three years holding an inquiry into crimes committed under Jammeh. The lead counsel for the commission, Essa Mbye Faal, is among the presidential contenders.

Barrow’s main opposition challenger, of the five running, is Ousainou Darboe, the 73-year-old leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) – a lawyer who has run for president five times, was imprisoned under Jammeh and briefly served as Barrow’s vice-president.

During campaigning, Darboe slipped and sustained a hairline fracture on his hip and was advised to limit his movement, according to his spokesman, explaining why he has been absent from some rallies or has addressed crowds by video.

Barrow fan club

At a rally for Barrow on Wednesday, the president spoke at a brown and gold podium, after posing with supporters who his party said had defected from other parties. Women sold meat pies and soft drinks and groups of people sat around chatting, while videos of Barrow were broadcast on a screen on the side of a truck. One man wore a T-shirt that read: “We say no to tribalism”; another read: “For our tomorrow, we take action today”.

Incumbent Gambian president Adama Barrow at a rally on Wednesday. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Incumbent Gambian president Adama Barrow at a rally on Wednesday. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Baba Salkar, a 46-year-old NPP security person, whose T-shirt was emblazoned with “President Barrow Fans Club”, said the president was a “good person” and “hard worker” who had improved freedom of speech. “He’s never locked anybody in prison,” he said.

Standing nearby, youth leader Matala Leigh said Barrow is developing the country and should stay in power for three terms. “He’s a democratic man. The people have rights now, they never had rights before ... Youth have rights, women have rights. We never had private TV. We have independent journalists now,” he said.

In contrast the vibe at the UDP rally the following evening is much less sedate, with a festival-style stage and thousands of young people dancing, drumming and singing, almost all wearing yellow. “We’re UDP; youth power,” they chant. Darboe is driven around the crowd in a white car before making a speech.

Rising prices

To one side of the stage sits 32-year-old Amie Cesay, a UDP youth mobiliser, who says she was most worried about the state of women’s health, a lack of mechanised farming and the rising prices of general commodities. The last election has taught her that politics could make a difference, she says. “We believe we can make change.”

“He is the right man for a better Gambia,” says Isatou Darboe (23), who wore a cowboy hat with the opposition candidate’s face on it. “He sacrificed a lot of things. Age is nothing. The young people do nothing. We need to give Gambia to old people to rule it for us. We want him to put a smile on our face.”

Supporters of the opposition UDP party at a rally on Thursday night, the last day of campaigning. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Supporters of the opposition UDP party at a rally on Thursday night, the last day of campaigning. Photograph: Sally Hayden

Youth leader Matala Leigh, right, says Adama Barrow should stay in power for three terms. “The people have rights now; they never had rights before.” Photograph: Sally Hayden

Youth leader Matala Leigh, right, says Adama Barrow should stay in power for three terms. “The people have rights now; they never had rights before.” Photograph: Sally Hayden

At the back of the crowd, a group of young men are dancing and smoking.

“We have nothing in this country,” complains Alagie Jaiteh (21). “Everyone is corrupt.”

“We are suffering,” adds his friend, Lamin Darboe (23).

Like others, they are concerned about the rising cost of rice, along with widespread unemployment and problems staying in education, which they say pushes young people to take dangerous journeys to Europe.

“A bag of rice is 1,500 delasis (€25.40). Imagine. We don’t have money. Right now we are suffering, we are crying,” says Jobarteh Brikan (20). “Africa is too hard.”

“The price of cooking oil has doubled in a year,” worries another man, a taxi driver. “Freedom of speech, we have it, but apart from that it’s not easy.”

The other candidates in Saturday’s election include Mama Kandeh, who came third in the 2016 polls; former aviation chief Abdoulie Ebrima Jammeh; and Halifa Sallah, a parliamentarian with the People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism.

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