, BANJUL, Nov 24 – Gambians were voting Thursday in polls tipped to hand incumbent Yahya Jammeh a fourth term at the helm of the tiny tropical state which he is accused of ruling through fear and repression for 17 years.
The main west African bloc withdrew plans to send observers for the election, saying Jammeh’s control of the media and intimidation of voters meant conditions were not in place for “free, fair and transparent” polls.
Hundreds of people lined up before polls opened at 0700 GMT to cast their vote by popping a glass marble into a coloured drum representing their candidate, a system used because of the high rates of illiteracy in continental Africa’s smallest state.
Amie Khan, 27, was one of the first to vote at Kombo North polling station in the capital, sending an audible clang ringing out as her marble hit the bicycle bell inside a dark green drum bearing a picture of the president.
“I voted for Jammeh because thanks to him I was able to attend university here,” she told AFP.
Standing in a line of about 200 people, Musa Manneh said: “I am going to vote against Jammeh because I have been convinced by the opposition that this country needs change.”
At another polling station in Serrekunda, just outside Banjul, Musa Sanneh, an unemployed man in his thirties said: “17 years of misrule is enough so Jammeh must go.”
While main opposition candidate 63-year-old lawyer Ousainou Darboe commands considerable support, analysts believe he is unable to unseat Jammeh, who has said his win is a foregone conclusion and only God can remove him from power.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said Wednesday it would not send observers to the election after sending a fact-finding mission to the country.
The mission reported “an unacceptable level of control of the electronic media by the party in power, the lack of neutrality of state and para-statal institutions, and an opposition and electorate cowed by repression and intimidation.”
The country’s sweeping palm-fringed 80 kilometre (50 mile) coastline makes it a favourite for European sun-seekers, who are greeted just outside the airport by a giant billboard — one of hundreds — bearing a life-sized image of Jammeh.
“We will not only vote for him in 2011, we are ready to die for him,” it reads.
The country’s military was at the forefront of campaigning for the former lieutenant who seized power in a coup aged just 29, and has since been accused by rights bodies of crushing dissent and overseeing extra-judicial killings and torture.
Jammeh dresses in white robes, clutching a Koran, sceptre and prayer beads he claims to cure AIDS and other diseases, and many Gambians believe he has special powers.
A campaign by tribal chiefs to have him crowned King fizzled out last year, but opponents say he still rules the nation as if it were his personal fief, commanding several government ministries, owning several businesses and large tracts of land.
“We don’t want biscuits, we want changes!” supporters Darboe chanted at a final campaign rally.
Jammeh is known for driving in a convoy up and down the main roads throwing biscuits to clamouring supporters. He also bestows gifts of sugar, rice and farming equipment to those who support him.
Despite criticism against him Jammeh’s regime has overseen strong economic growth, which is set to reach 5.5 percent in 2011, development and construction of roads, schools and hospitals — but only in communities who vote for him.