Death at rally casts shadow over Gambian elections

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The Independent Online

The police killing of a Gambian opposition supporter has thrown the spotlight on the tiny West African country's presidential election, in which Yahya Jammeh, who first came to power in a coup, hopes to win a second term.

Half a million people have registered for today's unique election in the tiny tourist paradise where each voter drops a marble into the drum of their chosen candidate. The marble strikes a bell inside the drum – to ensure that multiple voting can be detected – and bicycles are banned from the vicinity of polling stations to avoid confusion with their bells.

But the killing of a 25-year-old opposition activist has inflamed passions in an election that observers fear will be rigged. President Jammeh's opponents claim live ammunition was used to break up a weekend rally in Talinding, 12 miles from the capital, Banjul, where the activist died and a second opposition militant was reportedly left lying in a coma.

"It was a pretty ugly situation," said Nigel Jones, a British MP who is in Gambia helping to monitor the election. "I don't know what I would have done but shooting people was out of order."

On Monday, President Jammeh – who came to power in a coup in 1994 – threatened that anyone who disrupted the election would be shot dead. Yesterday, armed and unarmed police were patrolling the streets of Banjul and guarding the headquarters of the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).

In the last election, in 1996, President Jammeh's principal challenger, Oussainou Darboe, won 36 per cent of the vote against the incumbent's 56 per cent. But observers said that election was flawed because some candidates were banned from standing under a law preventing political activity.

Even though that law has been scrapped and Mr Darboe is this time standing on behalf of a powerful coalition of opposition parties, there is concern that President Jammeh will do all he can to hold on to power in Gambia.

Mr Darboe claims President Jammeh is intending to fabricate a coup plot, implicate and imprison his opponent and declare a state of emergency to secure victory.

The opposition candidate, who is a human rights lawyer, has promised legal reform and increased media freedom if elected. He is popular among students whose demonstrations last year resulted in a fierce clampdown and 12 deaths.

President Jammeh, who is only 36, has courted the foreign support of Libya, Taiwan and Cuba. Under his presidency, relations have cooled with Europe, including the former colonial power, Britain, whose deputy high commissioner was expelled last year for attending an opposition meeting.

Gambia has been named as one of the main conduits for diamonds smuggled out of civil war zones in Africa to fund the conflicts.