Voting is underway today in the tiny West African nation of The Gambia, where incumbent president Yahya Jammeh is seeking a fifth term. On the eve of elections, which were preceded by a fierce campaign, authorities have shut down the internet and other essential telecommunications. Independent candidate Adama Barrow, backed by a coalition of at least seven political parties, along with Mamma Kandeh of the newly formed Gambia Democratic Congress (GDC), are challenging Jammeh in what analysts say is the most crucial vote in more than two decades.
According to the electoral commission, in a country which has a population of about two million, up to 886,578 are registered voters. Polls opened at 7:00 am and will close at 5:00 pm (1700 hrs GMT).
Kemo Cham, a Gambian journalist living in exile, posted on Facebook about the shutdown:
Clearly he has lost, even before the votes are cast. Yaya jammeh is reported to have declared a state of emergency, shutting down the internet, international calls and even electricity supply, just hours before Gambians vote. He knows he will lose in a free and fair elections.
The shutdown started on the evening of Wednesday November 30, 2016, barely hours after a coalition of non-governmental organisations, led by Access Now, issued a letter calling on Gambian authorities not to block internet access.
“We implore you to keep the internet on,” the letter noted, adding that internet has enabled significant advances in health, education and creativity, and is now essential to fully realise human rights — including participation in elections and access to information.
Fatu Camara, a Gambian journalist and former press secretary of president Jammeh, who now hosts the country's most popular television show, tweeted about the shutdown:
Total information black out in #Gambia, no phone calls going through, no internet access Help us spread the word, dictators can't be trusted
— Fatu Camara (@Fatushow) November 30, 2016
Farou Jaw Manneh, a US-based Gambian, wrote:
Allahuakbar @HUBRIS!! Yaya Jammeh the Gambian God has ” closed/ shut down ” the internet & phone lines. Yaya Jammeh You will soon KNOW who the real God is. Hope God twists your treacherous and malicious plans in our favour. Go ahead and EAT the internet and phone lines. Arrogance is so blinding. Ndeysaan. Subhaanalaa.God bless Gambia. It will be OKAY. INSHALLAH. The real GOD the all knowing is in control. Not Jammeh.
In the 2015 “Freedom on the Net” report, Freedom House, a US-based organisation promoting freedom and democracy around the world, scored up to 65 countries on the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by their citizens. The Gambia was ranked the second worst out of 12 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Jammeh has said that any post-election protests will not be tolerated. He maintains that his leadership has improved the country, and says that the majority of tertiary-level students in The Gambia attend university on government scholarships.
Vote counting is conducted at the polling stations, where all candidates can be represented by at least two agents. Election results will start to trickle in by late this evening, but final counts are expected on Friday December 2, 2016.
Update 29 November 2016: In the end, ECOWAS will not observe the elections in The Gambia. According to local sources, the chairman of the electoral commission said the regional groups application for observation was not received on time.