, Banjul, Gambia, Dec 1 – Gambian President Yahya Jammeh faced the strongest electoral challenge of his 22-year rule Thursday as voters went to the polls, braving an internet and phone blackout the government defended as a security measure.
After an unprecedented two-week opposition campaign that has energised his rivals, Jammeh rumbled into the capital’s cricket ground in a 4X4 and after casting his vote predicted his best score ever.
“By the grace of the almighty Allah, there will be the biggest landslide in the history of my elections,” said Jammeh, wearing his usual white robes and sunglasses and carrying a staff and Koran.
Some 890,000 Gambians were eligible to vote — by dropping a marble into a coloured drum for their candidate — in a west African nation long accused by rights groups of suppressing freedom of expression.
Polling stations closed at 5pm (1700 GMT) and results were expected within a few hours.
The winner in the three-way race will serve a five-year term in the tiny former British colony with pristine beaches that occupies a narrow sliver of land surrounded by French-speaking Senegal.
Jammeh, who once said he would govern for a billion years if God willed it, is running for a fifth term in office with his ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
He faces previously unknown businessman Adama Barrow, chosen as the opposition flag bearer by a group of political parties who have joined forces for the first time and won unprecedented popular support.
“Power belongs to the people. You cannot stop us and you cannot stop them,” Barrow said after casting his vote in the village of Old Yundum.
“If (Jammeh) loses, let him concede defeat. And we know he is going to lose,” Barrow told AFP.
One opposition supporter, Sulayman Jallow, said “we were yearning for a change of government.”
“We have been marginalised, we have been persecuted, we have been tortured.”
A third candidate, former ruling party MP Mama Kandeh, is also standing for the Gambian Democratic Congress (GDC).
All three men are 51, born in 1965, the year The Gambia won its independence from Britain.
At his final campaign rally, Jammeh warned that protests over the election result would not be tolerated.
If Barrow were to win — a tall order both in terms of votes and the likelihood of Jammeh giving up power — he would likely decide to serve a three-year term at the head of a transition reform government.
– ‘Tremendous’ opposition support –
The government meanwhile defended a cut to internet and international calls, which went down at around 8:15pm (2015 GMT) on the eve of the vote. Text messages stopped early afternoon Thursday.
This was “so people don’t give out false info,” said Information Minister Sheriff Bojang.
“This is a security measure. They will lift it as soon as the result is announced,” he told AFP by phone.
Popular private voice and messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Skype and Viber are unavailable without a Virtual Private Network (VPN), software many Gambians use to work around the problem.
The opposition has relied on messaging applications and texts to organise rallies and move around roadblocks set up in Banjul during the last week of campaigning.
“We are not happy. Gambians need to know what is going on. Social media is very important for this election,” opposition leader Barrow said.
There will be no professional international observers present, diplomats have confirmed, but a small team of African Union experts will monitor events along with Banjul-based US and European delegations already present in the country.
Independent Election Commission vice-chairman Malleh Sallah told AFP that “Gambians have come out to vote in large numbers” but gave no figures.
Jammeh seized power in a 1994 coup and has survived multiple attempts to remove him from power. But 60 percent of the population live in poverty, and a third survive on $1.25 (1.20 euro) or less a day, according to the UN.