A FORMER security guard at an Argos store in London is seen as having the best chance of unseating one of the world’s most ruthless and eccentric leaders.

In critical elections on Thursday, (dec 1) which have been dogged by accusations of political repression, the former British colony of Gambia goes to the polls to elect a new president.

Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since seizing power in a 1994 military coup, is seeking a fifth consecutive term.

Now 51, Jammeh warned the opposition last week that they will never take the presidency away from him, claiming he has a mandate from God to rule the country.

“Being called a dictator doesn’t bother me at all because I am a dictator of development and progress,” he said, adding that he would eradicate hunger and destitution on his re-election.

His words come too late for Gambians like the talented teenage goalkeeper of the national women’s football team, one of the many who have died seeking a better life. Fatim Jawara drowned as she crossed the Mediterranean on her way to Europe where she hoped to be signed up to a club.


EVEN though it is one of the smallest countries in Western Africa, with a population of only two million, Gambia is the fourth-biggest contributor of refugees arriving in Italy after making the risky sea crossing.

“So many Gambians are leaving,” said Fatou Jagne, of human rights organisation Article 19. “This is not simply an election but a human resources issue.”

Many are pinning their hopes on Adama Barrow to oust Jammeh from power.

He has gone from being a security guard on Holloway Road to the person with the most credible chance of unseating the current president.

To help his bid, seven political parties have joined in an unprecedented coalition to back the 51-year-old.

If elected, he has vowed to stop executions, torture and arbitrary arrests.

“Gambia is going very wrong under Jammeh. He is a one-man show who is dictating everything,” said Barrow, a member of the United Democratic Party (UDP).

“Gambia has become one of the poorest countries in the world, with one of the worst human rights records, but because of his own selfish interests he has continued to impose himself.”


STANDING against Jammeh is a dangerous business, even for Barrow who is used to dealing with troublemakers and once made a citizen’s arrest on a shoplifter.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported earlier this month that the Gambian government’s repression of the political opposition threatened the fairness of the election.

It said the government had used a crackdown on the opposition, domination of state media, and state resources for campaigning to ensure a political advantage in the election.

HRW said: “Authorities have threatened, arbitrarily arrested, jailed, and tortured members of opposition political parties. Since April, more than 90 opposition activists have been arrested for participating in peaceful protests, with 30 sentenced to three-year prison terms. Two opposition activists have died in custody.”

The organisation’s deputy programme director Babatunde Olugboji added:“The Jammeh government has threatened, beaten and tortured opposition party members for exercising their basic rights, all but extinguishing hopes for a fair election. Unless this situation improves, Gambia’s international donors should impose targeted sanctions on senior officials implicated in abuses.”

The April death in custody of an opposition activist, Solo Sandeng, presaged a crackdown, principally targeting Gambia’s largest opposition party, the UDP. Sandeng was arrested on April 14 while leading a demonstration in favour of electoral reform. According to HRW, he was taken to the headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency and beaten to death.

The government broke up two further demonstrations on April 16 and May 9, arresting dozens of protesters, one of whom later died in custody, HRW claims.


IN recent weeks, Momodou Sabally, the director-general of Gambia’s state TV and radio broadcaster, was sacked and arrested on unnamed charges by the security services.

It is thought Sabally was seized because the TV station covered the nomination of an opposition candidate when it was scheduled to show the first lady, Zineb Jammeh, announcing an agricultural initiative.

Bakary Fatty, a reporter with GRTS, was then arrested, as was documentary maker Alhagie Manka after he took pictures of a presidential motorcade.

The detentions continued last week with the arrest of businessman Omar Malleh Jabang who is believed to fund opposition politicians.

Olugboji said: “The Gambian government’s arrest of three journalists could have a chilling effect on the media’s ability to fairly cover the election.

“Fair elections are only possible if all candidates and parties can freely campaign and journalists can report freely.”

Independent observers are doubtful whether the opposition can overcome people’s fears of intimidation to win the election.

“There is no chance of an upset. Jammeh will be re-elected and be west Africa’s longest-serving leader,” said Alex Vines, of London-based geopolitical think tank Chatham House.

If Jammeh does win, the opposition has reason to be worried. “Let me warn those evil vermin called opposition,” the president said. “If you want to destabilise this country, I will bury you nine feet deep.”