Gambian voters go to the polls on Thursday in an election that some are describing as the greatest challenge to President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year rule.
Amid concerns about the legitimacy of the upcoming election – including by the regional bloc the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), which has boycotted the elections – the opposition parties have been buoyed by the strong support they have seen at campaign rallies. However, observers still believe that the incumbent is still favourite to win the highly contested election.
What is at stake?
Youth unemployment is one of the most pressing issues in Gambia. Approximately 65% of the country’s population is aged under 30-years old. Meanwhile, youth unemployment, which is defined as people between the ages of 13 and 30 years old, stands at 38%, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
The lack of opportunities has forced many young male Gambians to seek better work prospects in Europe. Despite Gambia being one of the smallest countries in Africa, with a population of 2m people, the West African nation is the fourth largest contributor of migrants arriving in Italy during 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Around 153,900 Gambians travelled to Europe in 2015.
Meanwhile, economic growth in Gambia has been in the doldrums following the Ebola crisis in 2014. While the deadly virus did not spread into Gambia, the country’s primary driver of economic output, tourism, was affected as holidaymakers decided to stay away from the region. The direct contribution of the tourism sector to Gambia’s GDP plummeted by 44% year-on-year to $43mn in 2014, according to the World Travel and Tourism council. This caused economic growth to plummet year-on-year from 4.8% in 2013 to 0.9% in 2014, according to World Bank figures.
Despite the negative headline figures, there has been significant progress made in the last 20 years to improve literacy and child mortality rates, and the president has in the last year banned child marriage and female genital mutilation. However, 60% of the population still live in poverty, and a third survive on $1.25 or less a day, according to the UN.
Will the elections be free and fair?
President Yahya Jammeh, who took power in a military coup in 1994 and has a tight grip on the state security apparatus, has won four of the previous elections since. However, human rights groups have described those results as deeply compromised.
In order to boost their chances of winning this year, eight opposition parties have formed a coalition headed by businessman Adama Barrow, who is running on a reform platform. The third candidate in the election is Mamma Kandeh, a former Jammeh ally and member of parliament.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Barrow said: “My chances are high to beat the incumbent president Jammeh with a landslide victory. A new Gambia will be born December first.”
Despite Barrow’s confidence, concerns persist about the election’s validity, with the regional bloc ECOWAS refusing to observe the elections because “the political playing field was not level”. The organisation previously boycotted the Gambia’s elections in 2011 on the same grounds. Human rights organisations have warned that the security forces have launched a violent campaign against opposition figures, including the death of the well-known political activist Solo Sandeng in April while under police custody.
However, Gambia’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) chairperson Alieu Mamar Njai claimed the elections would be free and fair. He said: ”How can it be unlevel when the political parties are not complaining about that?”