Gambians go to the polls on December 1 to elect a new president. Incumbent Jammeh has been in power for 22 years - and plans to stay on. Those who criticize him suffer harsh repression. DW's Adrian Kriesch reports.
Suddenly, the taxi driver looked at me nervously and fell silent. He had just complained copiously about the situation in his country. With the economy in dire straits - he called it a catastrophe - he had to work two jobs, as a driver and an electrician, just to feed his family. Neither was a steady job. But then I told him that I was a journalist and he was shocked. "It is dangerous to speak openly to people, even within our own families. You can't trust anyone," he said.
As a foreign journalist in The Gambia you are constantly confronted with people's fears of saying the wrong thing. Interviews start by being agreed to, but are then quickly cancelled. "Too busy", you are told. The international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) talks of a "climate of fear" in this small west-African state. Since staging a successful coup 22 years ago, President Yahya Jammeh has used arbitrary arrests, torture and kidnapping as a way to pressure journalists and civil society to impose self-censorship, a report by HRW said.
"Certain people have told us that they are too scared to say what they think," pro-democracy activist Hannah Forster from the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies in Serrekunda, The Gambia's biggest city, told DW. "They are also afraid of being connected to the wrong people," she added. You very seldom hear direct criticism of the president.
His Excellency Sheiqh Alhaji Dr. Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa, as the president is officially known, is often the subject of negative news in the international press. This was the case when he threatened to personally cut the throat of homosexuals; when he claimed that he could cure AIDS; when he expelled critical diplomats and when he announced that The Gambia was leaving the International Criminal Court. In December 2015, after breaking ties with many western partners, Jammeh declared his country an Islamic Republic. Observers believe that this was a ploy to win the friendship and financial aid of the Gulf States. Female public servants sometimes have to wear a headscarf, but sex tourists are still very welcome.
Three-year-sentence for demonstrating
While Jammeh has won three presidential elections, the opposition was intimidated at every turn. This time is no different: the tension in The Gambia is palpable. After a political opponent died in prison, dozens of regime critics took to the streets in April and May. Since the demonstrations were not registered beforehand, 30 protesters were sentenced to three years in prison.
In November, state broadcaster GRTS aired live the nomination of opposition candidates for the December 1 election. Shortly afterwards, the broadcaster's director, Momodou Sabally, was summarily dismissed and later arrested by the secrete service. No reasons were given. Sabally is still in custody, although the constitution does not allow for a prisoner to be on remand for longer than 72 hours without appearing before a judge. His family and lawyers have been prevented from seeing him.
"The president does a very good job"
Yankuba Colley told DW that criticism leveled at the president is exaggerated and unfair. Colley is organizing the electoral campaign of the governing party APRC. "Human Rights Watch only listens to the other side. They believe everything they are told. But it is not the truth," he said. The president's long-time confidant said that the opposition is free, albeit supported by less than 30 percent of Gambians. He added that thanks to the president, the country has made giants strides in the areas of agriculture, education and health.
As a matter of fact, in the last couple of years, The Gambia did make good progress on the UN Milennium Development Goals. Child mortality has fallen and the poverty rate was reduced by almost a third. Female genital mutilation - which 75 percent of all Gambian women have been subjected to - was banned. "The president is doing a very good job. He changed the lives of the Gambians. After 22 years, we know that he can achieve even more in the future," Colley said. Around 880,000 Gambians are expected to vote.
Thousands are leaving The Gambia
The number of people leaving the country tells another story. More than 10,000 Gambians fled this year. They risked their lives in rickety boats to cross the Mediterranean Sea and reach Italy. Real estate agent Adama Barrow wants to stop this trend. He is the candidate supported by the first ever large alliance of opposition parties. "We will ensure that there is no fear anymore", Barrow told DW. "We are living in the 21st century. Things can't go on like this," he said.
My taxi driver shared the feeling that change must come. Even if President Jammeh wins again, he will have to allow for more freedom: "We're not stupid!" the driver told me, proudly holding up his smartphone. Mobile telecommunication services like WhatsApp and Viber have been blocked several times by the government. But the taxi driver and electrician did what most of his fellow Gambians do: he downloaded a VPN-App which allows him to bypass the blockade. "If you close a window, people will open a door," he smiled.