The polls for the Gambian elections opened on Saturday with long lines and an eagerness to cast their vote for the first time for one of six candidates without authoritarian ruler Yahya Jammeh’s name on the ballot.
The Independent Electoral Commission spokesperson Pa Makan Khan told RFI that between 90 to 95 percent of the polling stations opened by the official 8am start time.
The excitement was palpable as voters waited patiently in lines that snaked around the schools and madrassas where the votes were taking place. A number of people lined up two hours before the polls opened.
Some 962,000 Gambians are registered to vote.
Incumbent President Adama Barrow, Ousainou Darboe (United Democratic Party), MP Halifa Salah (People’s Demoncratic Organization for Independence and Socialism), Essa Faal, running as an independent, Yahya Jammeh loyalist Mama Kandeh (Gambian Democratic Congress) and Abdoulie Ebrimah Jammeh (National Unity Party) are all in contention for Gambia’s top job.
Mothers with babies, the disabled, infirm, or aged were allowed to cut the line. Veteran voter Mbemba Jabbi, 80, wearing a beige kaftan, tells RFI he voted for the first time in 1970, when he cast his vote for President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara in 1970.
“I’m old and I could have stayed at home today, but I wanted to vote because I think it’s about nationalism, and I’m really happy to be here,” he says.
In the town of Sukuta, voters chatted to each other at the polling station at a local madrassa, but some were upset that women were allegedly ‘borrowing’ babies in order to go to the front of the line to vote.
After checking their voter identification card with the poll worker, voters would have one of their fingers inked, then receive a crystal marble to vote. In the closed polling booth, the voter casts their vote into a drum with the candidate of their choice. The marble sounds a bell once it hits the bottom, and the voter is reassured they have voted.
There were a few complaints of malfeasance that were posted on social media, with one voter in particular complaining that the hole was too small to fit the marble on the voting drum to vote for presidential candidate and current President Adama Barrow.
IEC spokesman Khan told RFI that were some instances of the opening of the drums being a bit too small in a few polling stations, but were fixed immediately.
Bolong Conteh, presiding officer of the Ghadafi Mosque polling station in Churchhillstown said that a quarter of the 701 voters registered had already voted. The lines were short, and uncharacteristically quiet, compared to the happy or heated conversations at other polling stations in the Greater Banjul area.
Vote selling accusations
Amie, a voter speaking outside the voting booth where one could hear the bell sound after a voter cast their ballot with a crystal marble, says she has exercised her right to vote. “Every citizen should make their choice,” she said in Wallof, a local language here in Gambia.
Presidential candidate Halifa Salah voted on Saturday morning, calling the vote “the most decisive election in Gambian history.”
“I am convinced that this election will decide whether we have a new Gambian who can build a new Gambia, or we have Gambians who are still, by virtue of mindset, tied to the old,” he says.
Speaking to Gambian media in Wollof, Salah called on voters not to “enslave themselves” for a little amount of money by taking bribes to vote for other candidates.
“Gambians have come a long way and people should see Gambia first,” he says.
By noon, voters were frustrated by the long wait, with some standing under the hot sun. One young man stood in the line for four hours before reaching the polling place, but then was told he was in the wrong voting location. He walked away, saying he would not bother voting.
People voting for the first time were enthusiastic that their vote would make a difference.
Hassana Jeng, 19, said she felt a bit nervous casting her vote for the first time, but she says, “my vote is my voice.”
Going to the polls for Halimatou Keita was a long time coming. The 27-year-old voted for the first time on Saturday after living outside the country during the last election.
“I’m proud of voting, because it’s my right. I said to myself, ‘today I’m going to vote, I’m in my country!’”
First-time voter Sheriff Jallow, 20, also waited more than four hours at Plaza Cinema polling station in Serekunda, a town outside the capital.
“I’m hoping that my candidate will win, because I have so much hope,” he says after he voted.
“But if the president who I voted for doesn’t win, I hope whoever wins will invest more in infrastructure and help the youth with jobs,” says the taxi driver.
Polls close at 5pm, but the IEC says that anyone still in line after that time will be allowed to vote.
Counting begins at each polling station, and results are expected in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Additional reporting by Sally Jeng