BANJUL, Gambia (AP) — Gambians vote Saturday in a historic election that will for the first time not have former dictator Yahya Jammeh, who ruled for 22 years, on the ballot.
While the 2016 elections that removed him from power saw Gambians go from fear to elation, many are still not satisfied with the progress the nation has made and want certainty that the new leaders will bring the tiny West African nation of about 2 million, dependent on tourism, toward peace and justice.
Despite his departure from Gambia in 2017, Jammeh’s grip on the elections remains as candidates vow to continue to fight for justice — the nation continues to suffer from the effects of Jammeh’s rule, still awaiting justice for rights abuses committed during that time and funds taken from state coffers.
“As a country, we cannot heal without justice. We cannot have reconciliation without justice,” Gambia Bar Association lawyer Salieu Taal told The Associated Press.
Up to six candidates are vying for the country’s top post, including the incumbent Adama Barrow, who ran in 2016 as the candidate for an opposition coalition.
He faces former mentor and head opposition leader Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party; Mama Kandeh of Gambia Democratic Congress; Halifa Sallah of People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism; Abdoulie Ebrima Jammeh of the National Unity Party; and Essa Mbye Faal, former lead counsel of the truth commission, who is running under an independent ticket.
They have all vowed to run under an agenda for change as Gambians seek justice, but also a stronger economy in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to see large numbers attempting the deadly migration route to Europe.
Last week, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations commission handed its 17-volume report to President Barrow, urging him to deliver on expectations in ensuring that perpetrators of human rights violations are prosecuted.
Jammeh’s two-decade regime was marked by arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and summary executions that were revealed through dramatic testimony during the commission hearings that lasted for years.
Barrow, calling the commission one of the highlights of his presidential career, has promised prosecutions and justice for victims.
“I assure them (victims’ families) that my government will ensure that is justice is done, but I urge them to be patient and allow the legal process to take its course,” he told truth commission members upon receiving their final report.
Still, a Barrow re-election is uncertain as many Gambians feel betrayal after his National People’s Party reached a deal with the top figures of the former ruling party.
Ndey Sambou, a trader at Brikama market, told AP that the president should clear the air over the content of the memorandum of understanding signed between his party and the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) — which ultimately split with Jammeh.
Sainey Senghore who survived gunshot wounds during the April 2000 students massacre, made it clear that victims' expectations will be forefront as they head to the polls Saturday.
“This government came to place with a lot of promises. At the end, they are sidelining the victims, working in line with the perpetrators,” he said, calling Barrow’s rapprochement with APRC “very disheartening, and very disappointing.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by Abdoulie H. Bojang whose son was killed during the full-scale crackdown on peaceful students demanding justice for a rape victim.
“We need justice to be able to have closure in this ongoing tragedy,” he said.
The links to Jammeh are not only an issue for the current president, however. Opposition candidate Kandeh has been supported strongly by a breakaway political faction that Jammeh formed during his continuing exile in Equatorial Guinea.
While Kandeh continues to observe a resounding silence over Jammeh’s possible return, his allies are unequivocally saying that Jammeh will come back home if they emerge victorious in the coming elections.
Jammeh, who seized power in 1994 in a bloodless coup, was voted out of office in 2016 after opposition parties created a coalition and Gambians voted Barrow in, a show of intolerance with the abuses of the past.
After initially agreeing to step down, Jammeh resisted, and a six-week crisis saw neighboring West African countries prepare to send in troops to stage a military intervention. Jammeh was forced into exile and fled to Equatorial Guinea aboard a plane with his family and many belongings.
Of the other candidates, Sallah and Darboe are established politicians, but they face challenges from newcomers such as Faal and Ebrima Jammeh, who are making waves in urban areas.
Gambians, used to violence surrounding polls, worry about a possible confrontation between Barrow and Darboe supporters, as the years have seen a great divide between the two leaders who were once close.
“Gambia is too small. Election time militants should not allow politicians to drag them into violence,” Momodou Jobe, a resident of Serrekunda, told the AP.
Pierre Gomez, a professor and Vice Chancellor at the University of The Gambia, said political affiliations must no longer divide Gambians.
“We should tolerate, accommodate and embrace one another irrespective of our divergence in views; in fact, in our divergence, lies our strength,” he said earlier in the week in an opening address during a town hall meeting at the university. “Elections come and go, leaders come and go, but The Gambia will always remain.”
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.