What you need to know:
- A day of opposition protests ahead of a presidential election in two days’ time highlighted deep divisions over Jammeh’s 22-year-rule.
- Mr Adama Barrow, a businessman, emerged from obscurity to become the flagbearer of all The Gambia’s opposition parties bar one after mass arrests of supporters from the largest anti-government grouping in April.
- Diplomatic sources have indicated in recent days that Jammeh faces his most significant challenge since taking power in a 1994 coup.
- At a rally near Banjul on Tuesday, people shouted “Step down!” as they waved red cards demanding Jammeh’s removal after 22 years in power.
- Following unprecedented rallies nationwide, Mr Barrow has urged President Jammeh to go peacefully if he loses power on Thursday.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh said on Wednesday that no protests would be permitted after a two-week electoral campaign, as rallies in favour of opposition leader Adama Barrow reached boiling point in the capital, Banjul.
A day of opposition protests ahead of a presidential election in two days’ time highlighted deep divisions over Jammeh’s 22-year-rule, while the president took the opportunity to say his opponents could not succeed.
Mr Barrow, a businessman, emerged from obscurity to become the flagbearer of all The Gambia’s opposition parties bar one after mass arrests of supporters from the largest anti-government grouping in April.
“People have shown us tremendous support. With that support we are 100 per cent plus that we are going to win and with a big margin,” he told AFP on the final day of the campaign.
With no official opinion polls, it is difficult to corroborate Mr Barrow’s claim, but diplomatic sources have indicated in recent days that Jammeh faces his most significant challenge since taking power in a 1994 coup.
“If Jammeh wants advice... if he loses, let him accept the will of the people and accept the value of the Gambian people,” Mr Barrow said. Rights bodies and media watchdogs including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accuse Jammeh of cultivating a “pervasive climate of fear” and of crushing dissent against his regime, one cause of the mass exodus of Gambian youths to Europe.
At a rally near the capital Tuesday, people shouted “Step down!” as they waved red cards demanding Jammeh’s removal after 22 years in power.
“He killed dozens of our brothers, he’s a killer,” one man shouted, as supporters hanging out of parked vehicles kept up a chorus of: “Murderer, murderer!” “This is to show I would sacrifice my blood for the country,” said Mustafa Njie, a former Jammeh supporter turned opposition activist, gesturing at his red bandana.
Following unprecedented rallies nationwide, Mr Barrow has urged President Jammeh to go peacefully if he loses power on Thursday. Jammeh has won four elections with his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, following a 2002 constitutional amendment lifting term limits.
At his own final meeting with thousands of green-clad supporters in Banjul, the strongman said there was no question of a different result this time.
“Nothing is going to happen, this is not the first time we have conducted elections,” Jammeh told journalists. “They will not win,” he added. The leader added there was “no reason for anybody to protest” as The Gambia’s elections could not be rigged. “In this country we don’t allow demonstrations,” he added. Protests have been permitted only during the two weeks of the electoral campaign.
Governing, he said, “is between me and God Almighty.”
This deeply devout Muslim grew up in the western village of Kanilai in 1965, the year that The Gambia, a long east-west sliver of land bordered by Senegal, gained independence from Britain.
Now 51, Jammeh has attracted worldwide attention for declaring The Gambia an Islamic nation, withdrawing the country from the International Criminal Court, and claiming he had concocted a herbal cure for HIV/Aids.
The longtime ruler has woven a shroud of mysticism around himself using religion and rumours of secret powers. Never seen without his Koran, sceptre and prayer beads, Jammeh’s billowing white robes are rumoured to hide a bulletproof vest, the legacy of several coup attempts by his own guards.
In the last few years, a crackdown on journalists, opposition figures and anyone deemed disloyal within the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), has intensified.
He has promised to bury critics “nine feet deep” and told the UN Secretary-General to “go to hell” after Ban Ki-moon called for an investigation into an activist’s death in custody.
But in another moment he urged his supporters to restrain themselves from violence and allow Thursday’s election to go ahead peacefully.
Rights groups allege that those who defy him end up in the country’s notorious Mile Two prison, where the UN in 2014 said it had obtained evidence of torture and executions by the country’s National Intelligence Agency, which reports directly to Jammeh.
This was supplemented by “interference with the independence of the judiciary, denial of due process, prolonged pre-trial and incommunicado detention,” Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns said.
“The security forces are his tools, and he uses them to control Gambia by arresting people who don’t share his views,” a prominent opposition figure told Human Rights Watch.
Gambia’s diplomatic relations have also been precarious of late. In December 2014, the EU cut off EUR13 million of funding, and threatened to block another EUR150 million in response to the country’s poor human rights record.
International criticism followed the introduction of an “aggravated homosexuality” law in October 2014 that imposed life sentences for a series of new offences.
And EU and ECOWAS observers are not attending 2016’s presidential vote.
Relations with neighbouring Senegal too are at an all-time low.
A huge increase on customs fees for trucks entering Gambian territory was put into place without warning in February, cutting the country off from vital supplies for months.
One Banjul-based diplomat told AFP that the blockade, the effects of a 2013 drought, and tourist fears of Ebola in a country that relies on sunseekers for up to 20 percent of its GDP had made economic conditions unbearable for many Gambians.
Jammeh controls several businesses in the country and has in the past seized them without warning, discouraging foreign investment.
The state of the economy has pushed many young Gambians to take the “Back Way”, or migrant route across the Sahara to Libya, where they board boats bound for Italy.
But others remain grateful for investment in education and the health system, which were severely neglected under his predecessor.
“He has totally changed the life of the Gambian people,” said Yankuba Colley, a key Jammeh campaign organiser. “The future of The Gambia lies in his hands.”