Gambia's Jammeh eyes fourth term

2011-11-22 21:03

Monrovia - Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a bloodless coup 17 years ago, is seeking a fourth term in a presidential election scheduled for Thursday.

The 46-year-old, who has quipped "only God can remove me from power," is up against two rivals in the poll, Ousainou Darboe and Hamat Bah. Although Darboe won 27% of the vote in Gambia's 2006 election, analysts say Jammeh is widely expected to be re-elected on Thursday.

Jammeh, a former wrestler, is credited with improving health care, education and roads. He has also boosted tourism, encouraging investment from international hotel chains. More than 150 000 tourists visit Gambia's sandy beaches each year, representing about 16% of the country's national income, according to the Overseas Development Index.

But critics say sex tourism is rife and the country's record on human rights is poor.

Amnesty International has called the situation "dire."

"The government refuses to abide by its international human rights obligations. Cases of enforced disappearance remain unresolved, perpetrators of unlawful killings have not been brought to justice, and torture is still widely used by security forces," the rights group said in a July report.

There have been cases of UN officials, heads of non-governmental organisations and rights researchers being thrown out of the country, and, according to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, reporters have "disappeared" after criticising the president.

"Consistent government harassment has forced a steady stream of journalists into exile," the group has noted.

It estimates that at least 40 Gambian journalists - including sports reporters chastised after criticising the country's football league -have fled the country during Jammeh's rule. Many operate newspapers and radio stations from neighbouring Senegal, where they can work without fear.

Homosexuality is also outlawed in the tiny country. In 2008, Jammeh threatened to "cut off the head" of any gay or lesbian citizens.

The two main opponents to Jammeh have a long history of running for the presidency, but have never been able to break Jammeh's hold on the office.

63-year-old Darboe, Jammeh's main opponent, first campaigned for the presidency in 1996, two years after Jammeh came to power, scooping up 36% of the vote.

A human rights lawyer, his UDP party is campaigning on a platform of "democracy, human rights and good governance".

If elected, Darboe says he will impose presidential term limits, investigate "disappearances," improve the country's international reputation and work for freedom of the press.

Leader of the National Reconciliation Party (NRP) Hamat Bah worked in a hotel on one of the Gambia's main tourist strips before becoming a politician. He came third in Gambia's 2001 presidential election, winning 7.8% of the vote.

An 11-day period of election campaigning ends on Tuesday, which targeted almost 800 000 registered voters in the country of 1.6 million. Election observers from the African Union and Ecowas community of West African states are expected to witness Thursday's poll.

Thursdays have special significance in West Africa's smallest country. West African elections are more commonly scheduled for Sundays, but in Gambia Thursday is a day of spiritual importance.

It is the day of the week when the president, a self-styled herbalist, claims he can cure Aids. The cure, which he has said works at no other time, is administered at his home and requires stopping anti-retroviral treatment.

The president is able to stand for a fourth term in office after removing term limits to the country's constitution in 2002. Despite already assuming the title of "His Excellency the President Sheik Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Jammeh," a campaign led by tribal chiefs is under way to make him king.

Darboe has told local media that turning the country into a monarchy would be one way to ensure that Jammeh, who became president at the age of 29, was able to rule for life - a feat that could see him staying in power longer than Muammar Gaddafi, Gabon's Omar Bongo or Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.