JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Gambia's president of 17 years vowed his work "will not be destroyed by anyone" as voters in this tiny country cast ballots Thursday in an election that the West African regional bloc has said cannot be considered fair.
President Yahya Jammeh already has proclaimed that neither an election nor a coup can shake his grip on power, and experts believe voter apathy is high as the outcome seems all but certain.
"Our 17 years' work will not be destroyed by anyone," the 46-year-old president told his supporters on the eve of the vote. "You ... are faithful to God, and this is why He will continue to help us."
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.
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.
On Wednesday, the regional bloc ECOWAS said Gambia's vote could not be free or fair, citing "an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation."
The bloc 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.
Despite the odds, leading opposition candidate Ousainou Darboe remained upbeat in the final hours of his campaign.
"We want change. Every Gambian needs development with dignity," he told thousands of his supporters.
Darboe has picked up some key endorsements recently, though the country's opposition is divided between two candidates. Prominent human rights lawyer Mai Fatty also returned from exile to support him, though Fatty said he's received death threats since coming home.
"They are threatening my life and said they are very mad with my campaign speeches. They are claiming to be security personnel," he told The Associated Press.
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: