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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 September 2006, 19:38 GMT 20:38 UK
Gambia's struggle to embrace democracy
By Lucy Fleming
BBC News website, Banjul

Gambia's president is nothing if not imposing, some might say regal.

Jammeh poster
Jammeh is red hot favourite to win
Perched through the sunroof of his black stretch limo, Yahya Jammeh has been criss-crossing the tiny West African nation, throwing T-shirts to his people, urging them to vote for him in Friday's elections.

Scrums break out as his supporters fight over the white and green tops, and everywhere you go you can spot people wearing them.

"Vote for peace and prosperity" billboards - the slogan of Mr Jammeh's Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party - have also been going up in the last frenetic days of the campaign.


But the same cannot be said for supporters of his two rivals, Ousainou Darboe and Halifa Sallah.

Gambians share their views on the elections

None of their posters or T-shirts are visible and their party colours - yellow and grey respectively - are only seen at campaign meetings.

"In Africa we're scared. You only speak when you're in favour of the government," says a man who works at one of The Gambia's many tourist resorts.

But the president - a one-time army lieutenant who came to power in 1994 in a bloodless coup and has won two elections since - has a large, loyal and vocal following.

"He's a hard worker," is the most popular refrain.

"Jammeh has built more than 226 schools over the past 12 years. He has built so many hospitals we can't count. He's built kilometres and kilometres of road," says Edward Singhateh, the APRC's general secretary.

It is his success on these issues that the president brandishes before the electorate.


At a campaign rally on Sunday, he stood on a platform, resplendent in white robes, repeating a warning to the crowds that areas that voted against him would not receive further development.

Nadd supporters
For the opposition human rights is a campaign issue
A vote against him meant people did not want progress, he explained.

But for other Gambians - about 69% of whom live below the poverty line - the rising cost of living is a more pressing issue.

"The roads, schools and the hospitals are all good, but if you don't have your stomach full, you cannot work. If you have no food you cannot learn. We are suffering," says Lamin Kamara, a supporter of Mr Darboe's United Democratic Party alliance.

"We want the country to be changed and we want the price of a bag of rice to be reduced," he explains.

The National Alliance for Democracy and Development, for whom sociologist Halifa Sallah is standing for the first time, is beating the same drum, warning that the government's progress cannot be sustained.

"The roads and hospitals are all based on loans and the budget is experiencing a deficit," he says.


Both opposition parties have also voiced concerns in the past about media and political harassment - Mr Sallah was one of three detained opposition figures only released after the intervention of Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo earlier in the year.

APRC supporters
APRC supporters are vocal in their support for Jammeh

Two weeks before the polls a journalist working for state television assigned to cover the opposition campaign was arrested and sacked for his coverage and another journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh, has been missing since July.

The Point - a privately owned newspaper - has incorporated into its masthead a photo of a journalist murdered in December 2004, with the question: "Who killed Deyda Hydara?"

Mr Hydara was a vocal critic of draconian new media laws and those responsible for his killing have never been brought to book.

"The environment is hostile - we've had instances of newspapers and radio stations being burnt down. A DJ was attacked and his house burnt down, another woman journalist was physically assaulted," says Madi Ceesay, the president of the Gambia Press Union, who was himself detained in March for 22 days.

"Not a single person has been arrested for these actions, so journalists do not feel safe," he says.

And many Gambians, usually so friendly and hospitable, are scared to talk to journalists openly, especially when it comes to politics.

Smooth ride

State radio and television have been carrying 40 minutes of election coverage for all three candidates during the election period, but private radio stations stay clear of political news.

The army and police are loyal to the president too. Soldiers line the road if the presidential campaign convoy is passing by waving branches in welcome and police at APRC rallies wear "Vote Jammeh" badges.

The independent electoral commission says they have been happy with campaigning so far, which has been peaceful and not dampened by the heavy rainfall that turns many of Gambia's unsurfaced roads into muddy bogs.

And with little to differentiate between the opposition parties, except for Mr Sallah's promise to stand for only five years, Mr Jammeh looks like he will have a smooth ride in his limo back to State House.

One security guard told me that although Mr Jammeh was not perfect, he would be getting his vote.

"Why replace someone with the strength of a sheep with one who may have the strength of a wolf?" he said.


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