Gambia voters expected to re-elect longtime ruler
JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Dropping marbles into the container for their candidate, Gambians voted Thursday in an election expected to keep their president of 17 years in power. Regional observers boycotted the poll, citing repression and intimidation.
President Yahya Jammeh already has proclaimed that neither an election nor a coup can shake his grip on power, and experts said voter apathy was high as the outcome seemed all but certain.
When asked by journalists on Election Day whether he would accept the results if the opposition wins, Jammeh replied: "Do I look like a loser?"
"Gambians are development-oriented people. They want development for this country, and they know who can deliver. There is no way I can lose," the 46-year-old president said. "In 17 years I have done for this country what the British were not able to do in 400 years."
On Wednesday, the regional bloc ECOWAS said Gambia's vote could not be considered fair, citing "an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation."
Many voters also turned up Thursday only to be told they were at the wrong polling station.
"It is really discouraging. People are finding it difficult to know the place where they are supposed to vote," said One Isatou Njie, a homemaker in Gambia's capital.
Voters dropped their marbles into one of three containers: Green for Jammeh, yellow for leading opposition candidate Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP), and blue for Hamat Bah, the candidate of a four-party United Front.
Jammeh, who has drawn international criticism for his claim he can cure AIDS with an herbal body rub and bananas, first took power at the age of 29 after a 1994 coup. Last year, tribal chieftains toured the country of nearly 2 million to rally support for his coronation as king.
One of his campaign billboards reads: "From Darkness to Light with President Jammeh: You cannot afford to continue hating yourself by not voting for him in 2011."
"Jammeh has total control of the media, and the state coffers that he uses as his own bank account, so I don't really think it's going to be free and fair," said Abdoulaye Saine, a political science professor at Miami University in Ohio who specializes in Gambia. "But the opposition also basically shot themselves in the foot by not getting together."
Despite the odds, leading opposition candidate Darboe remained upbeat about his prospects and impressed by the voter turnout.
"Gambians are willing to overcome the voter apathy," he said. "This is evidence that they are interested in taking charge of the destiny of this nation. They want change."
Supporters credit Jammeh with improving infrastructure across the country, best known as a beach holiday destination for Europeans. However, human rights groups and other observers say the Gambian government has cracked down hard on opponents and journalists.
ECOWAS decided not to send election observers, saying instead that it hoped to work with the government "to create a level playing field for future elections." Observers from the African Union, Commonwealth and European Union are still monitoring Thursday's vote.
Jammeh drew swift condemnation from activists in 2007 after he insisted that patients stop taking their antiretroviral medications so his cure could have an effect. Earlier this year, he marked the fourth anniversary of his "herbal breakthrough."
In 2009, his administration rounded up nearly 1,000 people accused of being witches and forced them to drink an unidentified liquid. Some developed serious kidney problems and two people died, according to Amnesty International.
Jammeh also claims to have treated hundreds of infertile women this year alone.
Associated Press writer Abdoulie John in Banjul, Gambia contributed to this report.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh's website: