Gambians seize rare chance to show political colours
For two weeks every five years in the Gambia, political activists across the spectrum are permitted to gather for boisterous rallies that would ordinarily put demonstrators at risk of jail.
For the ruling party, it is a chance for a carefully choreographed gathering of the willing and the conscripted, but for the opposition, a chaotic energy is unleashed onto the streets that for once has no fixed time, place or plan.
Friday was the moment that supporters of Adama Barrow, the candidate for a coalition of seven opposition parties in the December 1 presidential election, held a rolling rally along several kilometres of road to welcome him home from campaigning in the provinces.
There is less than a week to go before Barrow faces President Yahya Jammeh in the most significant challenge to the incumbent’s power during his four straight terms in office.
Static opposition rallies were organised and cancelled several times on social media as the crowd kept outgrowing planned venues.
Hanging from pick-ups, dancing in the middle of the highway, shouting and waving to the convoy of the many parties backing Barrow, the young crowd was in high spirits.
Grey — the coalition colour — and orange — of the largest opposition party — were widely worn and waved.
“After 22 years we’ve been with (Jammeh), and this time around it’s like the whole of the Gambia wants a change, because it’s only in the change of leadership that we can bring about a lasting peace,” said Ousman Bah, a 26-year-old student.
Not far from this district just outside the capital Banjul, young people were beaten and herded into trucks by national security officers for protesting for political reform as recently as April.
Some were never seen again: the death in custody of Solo Sandeng, a rising star in the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), galvanised another protest, leading to the arrest of top UDP officials.
Several of them, including UDP leader Ousainou Darboe, are serving three-year sentences for organising an illegal protest.
For that reason it is rare to hear women like Alimatou Barrow, 22 and unemployed, talk so vocally about their dislike of Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994. But the spirit of the campaign appears to have loosened normally quiet tongues.
“This man is killing in our country, so we’re tired of that. All our boys went the back way (the migrant route to Europe), some of the people die there, so we need changes, we need changes, we are tired of this man,” she told AFP.
Gambians represent the largest group of migrant arrivals to Italy per capita, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Rights groups regularly accuse the government of abuses and arbitrary arrests.
– ‘Jammeh, we love you’ –
The contrast with Jammeh’s own rally of the faithful on Thursday in the village of Brikama, south of the capital could not have been greater.
Schoolchildren were arranged into formation hours ahead of the president’s arrival, standing to attention until one girl fainted after four hours of waiting.
Groups waved placards that showed what school or organisation they belonged to: Brikama Athletic Association, Serrekundanding village — even the Jamissa Upper and Senior Secondary school French Club were in attendance.
There was dancing by women in identical outfits who didn’t stop clapping and jiving even under the watchful eye of the military police.
Everywhere, people wore and brandished every imaginable shade of green, the colour of Jammeh’s ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
Performers pretended to cut their skin with knives, and the “kankurang” — figures covered head to toe in dried leaves with a spiritual role for Gambia’s Mandinka people — shook to music.
“I’ll vote for Mr Jammeh. If I am given the chance to vote a million times all of my votes go into his column,” declared Yahya Jattah, a carpenter, standing near a showpiece anti-aircraft gun.
Suddenly the “green boys” appeared — child supporters who herald the president’s coming, chanting “Yahya, Yahya Jammeh, we love you”.
And finally, stood on a mounted platform that was driven around the village football ground: Jammeh.
Resplendent as ever in white robes and clutching the Koran, prayer beads and a wooden staff that complete the former lieutenant’s civilian uniform these days.
Ministers who had been sat idle, using their phones were suddenly on their feet as the chanting grew louder and dancers’ feet moved faster.
Taking in the adulation as his hefty security officers beat back the overly enthusiastic, Jammeh shook hand after waiting hand.
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