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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Gambia's election challenge
Supporters of President Yayah Jammeh (Pic:Jammeh.com)
Tensions are mounting as the election day approaches
By West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle in the Gambian capital, Banjul

The president of The Gambia was clearly enjoying himself.

He was standing with head and shoulders through the sunroof of his four wheel drive, tossing T-shirts to the crowd.

President Jammeh addresses an election rally (Pic:Jammeh.com)
The opposition accuses the president of intimidating the electorate.
The people, poor rural villagers for the most part, were scrabbling and fighting for one of the precious garments which, of course, had a smiling picture of President Yahya Jammeh printed front and back.

Going by a T-shirt poll, it is difficult to call this election. It could be close.

The green T-shirts of the ruling party are evident wherever President Jammeh goes. But the yellow T-shirts of the opposition abound in the places they hold their meetings.

This election is taking place in a country that is the butt of cruel jokes because of its size.

The story goes that the borders of The Gambia, a long thin spit of land jutting into the heart of neighbouring Senegal, were determined by firepower.

More precisely how far the British colonialists could fire a cannon from their boats on the river that is the spine of country.

Serious challenges

But jokes aside, this election symbolises many of the challenges facing Africa.

Just before the president arrived at his election rally in a welter of flying green T-shirts, I was surprised to see a truck with a large anti-aircraft gun drive through the crowd.

Gambia's President Yayha Jammeh
According to T-shirts President Jammeh is in for a close contest

The soldiers on board that truck, and about 100 other troops who subsequently arrived, were the president's security men.

Presidential aides told me these were quite normal security measures.

Well yes, up to a point, but even in unstable parts of Africa it's only normal to bring out the big guns if there is a military threat.

In The Gambia there aren't any known armed opponents to the Jammeh regime.

The opposition parties in this election say the display of military hardware is designed to intimidate the electorate.

Question marks

President Jammeh came to power in 1994 in a bloodless military coup when he was a young army lieutenant.

Who is who in Gambia's presidential election race
President Yahya Jammeh - Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction
Ousainou Darboe - Three-party opposition alliance & leader, United Democratic Party
Sherriff Mustapha Dibba - National Convention Party
Hamat Bah - National Reconstruction Party
Sidia Jatta - People's Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism

Two years later he civilianised his rule in elections widely seen as unfair because he banned a number of his opponents from standing.

And so there are question marks in Thursday's election about how level the playing field is between the various candidates.

President Jammeh has all the advantages of incumbency and that incumbency derives from a military coup.

His supporters say, and they have a point, that he overthrew a lazy and corrupt civilian government which had done little for The Gambia.

And they add that the opposition coalition is just the old guard in disguise trying to return to power.

Challenge of democracy

And so what we have in this election is the challenges of democracy in Africa, but in miniature.

About a half a million voters will decide if they like the dynamic, though blunt and sometimes brutal former military man. Or perhaps they will prefer the quietly spoken lawyer Ousseini Darboe, who heads the main anti-military opposition coalition.

Supporter of ex-president Jawara with his portrait
The government says the opposition is just the old guard in disguise

The package tourists who flock to The Gambia for their annual dose of sun and sea have been watching the convoys of election campaigners with bemusement.

The foreign visitors, mainly from Britain and Scandinavia, smile and clap when the people in coloured T-shirts dance along the road.

But they stare in confusion when the anti aircraft guns roll by.

What the tourists think is very important for the Gambia because their hard cash is the main foreign exchange earner for the country.

When the military coup took place in 1994 there was a sharp drop in tourist arrivals.

The numbers have gradually picked up again as The Gambia has polished its image. And in fact the tourists have rarely been troubled by any of the political hiccups.

Nevertheless, what The Gambia needs on Thursday, if the tourists are to remain in their cheerful and quite understandable ignorance, is a peaceful and uneventful election.

The signs of whether that will happen are mixed.

There's been a buoyant and colourful campaign with President Jammeh and the main opponent Oussseini Darboe driving up and down the river banks in search of votes.

Tension mounting

But as the day of the election approached tension has mounted with political thugs causing clashes between the two camps.

On Tuesday a youth was shot dead in a riot.

By the standards of this normally sleepy country this was shocking, and the hope must now be that reprisals attacks don't take place.

Then the tourists can remain in their fog of innocence, applying their sun block by the poolside, and spending the cash that the people of this country so desperately need.

See also:

17 Oct 01 | Africa
More election violence in Gambia
11 Apr 00 | Africa
Protests at Gambia killings
14 Aug 01 | Africa
Gambia opposition 'not divided'
21 Aug 01 | Africa
Gambia hit by pre-poll fever
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