Gambia Vote Could Bring Return of Aid


A particular kind of military-cum-democratic rule has emerged in West Africa this year, with coup leaders first in Niger in July and now in Gambia winning presidential elections held largely to appease Western donors. When results were announced last Friday in the Gambian capital of Banjul, soldiers and Army supporters rejoiced in the streets.

Col. Yahya Jammeh, who overthrew one of Africa's oldest and most stable multiparty democracies two years ago, received over 60 percent of the Sept. 26 vote, according to the country's independent electoral commission. Eighty percent of the electorate turned out.

But while the vote itself was deemed mostly free and fair, the electoral process was not, observers say. Political parties had been banned until just a month before the vote and even then, Colonel Jammeh would not allow politicians who had been associated with the former government to participate, effectively banning all major opposition party leaders.

The only three candidates were a lawyer, a minor opposition leader, and a hotel manager, and they were given little opportunity to campaign in the mostly Army-controlled media.

Lawyer Ousainu Darboe, the strongest candidate, received about 36 percent of the vote. He took refuge in the Senegalese Embassy after the vote, fearing soldiers would attack him for challenging their leader. Mr. Darboe claims soldiers had tried to kidnap and assassinate him several times during the campaign.

An electoral loss by Jammeh would have been "a recipe for a particularly unstable situation," says one Western diplomat in the region. Many observers say that partly explains why voters stuck with the Army candidate.

Jammeh now waits to see if the major Western powers will accept him as a democratically elected leader and restore aid. Neither they nor the United Nations, nor the British Commonwealth nations sent observers to protest the questionable nature of the elections. But Army leaders in Gambia may have noticed that Western criticism of deeply flawed elections in nearby Niger, as well as Ivory Coast, Guinea, Cameroon, and Kenya, has been quickly followed by substantial flows of new aid. "Our standards have slipped," conceded one Western diplomat in the region.

In Gambia, the donors' dilemma over whether to recognize Jammeh is complicated by the probability that he has considerable popular support - certainly more than the man he overthrew. Sir Dawda Jawara had been in power ever since Britain relinquished Gambia as a colony in 1965. His regime was considered corrupt and inept, and the country has fallen into decay.

"Something had to have been wrong," says Gambian political analyst Hilifa Sallah. "How can [Mr. Jawara] win elections every year for 30 years, and yet there is almost no outcry when he is overthrown?" Mr. Sallah says people voted for Jawara because of patronage he handed out to supporters.

Jammeh, by contrast, has built high schools, health clinics, and a big hospital in this tiny West Africa nation surrounded on three sides by Senegal. He established the country's first television station and will soon inaugurate a modern international airport. He has even more ambitious plans, such as a utopian city for 100,000 people - one-tenth of Gambia's entire population.

Without Western aid for the last two years, the country has lost up to $50 million or 10 percent of its national income. Tourism, another of its main sources of revenue, has dried up, largely because of a British travel advisory warning tourists to avoid it.

Jammeh has cultivated "nontraditional" donors such as Libya, Cuba, and Nigeria. Taiwan gave about $80 million after Jammeh decided to recognize it instead of mainland China.

According to Ebrima Ceesay, editor of the Daily Observer, one of the country's few independent newspapers, "He tramples on people, but Gambians indeed got their choice."

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