Gambians go to the polls on Saturday to pick a president, in the poor West African country’s first elections since ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh fled into exile nearly five years ago.
Voters in the tiny nation, the smallest on mainland Africa, are concerned about improving living conditions.
But Jammeh, who seized power in The Gambia in 1994 and ruled with an iron fist for 22 years, still casts a long shadow.
His possible return from exile and how the country should respond to the litany of alleged crimes under his rule — including rape, torture, the use of death squads and state-sanctioned witch hunts — have been central themes.
Jammeh was forced into exile in Equatorial Guinea in January 2017 after President Adama Barrow, then a relative unknown, defeated him at the ballot box.
But the ex-dictator retains significant political support in The Gambia, where his advocates are lobbying for his return.
Jammeh has also sought to influence the election, calling in to address rallies of supporters ahead of Saturday’s vote.
Some observers see the election as a test of the country’s fledgling democracy.
Gilles Yabi, founder of the Wathi think tank based in Senegal’s capital Dakar, praised The Gambia’s progress, pointing to a new “period of freedom where people can express themselves without fear of danger”.
But he stressed that democratic gains remain fragile.
“It is important to confirm this direction (towards democracy) with elections that go well, regardless of the outcome,” he said.
– ‘No miracles’ –
New freedoms have come with expectations that economic circumstances should also improve, according to Yabi.
But that “miracle has not happened,” he said, noting that the Covid pandemic delivered a severe blow to the country’s tourism-reliant economy.
The Gambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. About half of its two million inhabitants live on less than $1.90 a day, the World Bank says.
Several Gambians interviewed said economic issues dominated their concerns.
“I am struggling,” said Abdoulaye Janneh, a 27-year-old electrician near the capital Banjul.
He explained that the current government had promised jobs, especially for young people, but has yet to deliver.
For 56-year-old President Barrow, who is running for re-election, the vote is a test of confidence in his ability to deliver development.
Five other men are also contesting the election, although political veteran Ousainou Darboe, 73, is considered the leading opposition candidate.
A lawyer who has represented opponents of Jammeh, Darboe ran for election against the former dictator several times.
He also served as foreign minister and then vice president under Barrow, before stepping down in 2019.
Darboe said that Barrow had “failed miserably,” and tried to keep himself in power rather than cementing the democratic transition.
– Political manoeuvres –
Under Barrow, the death penalty has been repealed, political prisoners released and multi-party democracy inaugurated.
The Gambia also filed a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Myanmar of genocide in its campaign against the Rohingya minority under his government.
But Barrow, a former property developer, has also attracted criticism for what some perceive as manoeuvring to secure his political future.
He secured victory in 2016 after a coalition of parties backed him, on condition that he step down after three years.
But the president then reneged on the promise — serving the full five-year term allowed under the constitution instead — triggering sometimes violent protests.
Controversially, Barrow’s NPP party also announced a pact with Jammeh’s APRC in September — a move viewed as an electoral ploy in some quarters, and denounced by rights activists.
Jammeh said that decision was taken without his knowledge, however, and his supporters have formed a rival party.
Still, the move has raised doubts about Barrow’s willingness to prosecute Jammeh-era crimes.
A truth commission set up to probe abuse allegations under the ex-dictator’s rule handed its final report to Barrow last month — and recommended the government pursue criminal charges.
Such a move is highly politically sensitive given Jammeh’s political following.
Neither the report, nor the names of the officials against whom charges were recommended, were released.
Barrow — or whichever candidate wins the vote — has six months to decide how to respond to the report.
Polls are set to open at 0800 GMT on Saturday and close 1700 GMT. There will be one round of voting, and initial results could be expected as early as Sunday.