Kerr Serign, THE GAMBIA – As the Independent Electoral Commission begins registering voters across the Gambia, the country is preparing for its most competitive presidential elections since gaining independence in 1965.
Already over 20 political parties are registered with the electoral commission while a few others have expressed interest in participating in the December 4 presidential election as independent candidates.
This election will decide whether current President Adama Barrow will remain in power. His opponents have offered numerous criticisms claiming he is incapable of leading the country.
Barely days into the registration, which started about two weeks ago, many Gambians seemed to question the transparency of the voter registration process, alluding that the independent electoral commission is on Barrow’s side.
Almamy Fanding Taal is a public relations officer for the United Democratic Party, which is the biggest opposition party in the Gambia. Taal said the Independent Electoral Commission is falling far too short of what is expected from them as the referee of elections in the Gambia, as they are not allowing party representatives to properly monitor the voter registration process.
“From day one, we have always been concerned about our agents not being allowed by the IEC officials to properly monitor,” said Taal. “The procedure is very clear. If you go to register and we are suspicious of your eligibility, it is the right of the party agents to get the information you registered with from the IEC and the IEC is not providing that for us.”
Taal also called on the Independent Electoral Commission to obey and work under the laws of the Gambia to avoid problems during coming elections considering the number of contestants.
It is not only the United Democratic Party that is not happy with the work of the Commission.
Another opposition political party, the Gambia Democratic Congress, also raised concerns about the Commission giving voter cards to minors in the president’s hometown of Mankamang Kunda.
MC Cham, the youth mobilizer for the Gambia Democratic Congress, said the Commission was registering underage children – which is against the law – in Barrow’s hometown in the early days of registration.
“This is concern is from the whole party,” said Cham. “We have evidence that the president’s party supporters are bringing children at the Mankamang Kunda registration centres to acquire voter card. We think this is wrong and the IEC should not allow this to continue.”
Cham also highlighted that their party agent who reported the matter was beaten up and arrested when he wanted to stop the children from the getting the voters card.
“After our agent was beaten up and arrested by the Police Intervention Unit, the Independent Electoral Commission continue issuing the voter card to the kids belonging to National People’s Party supporters which was such a disappointing move by the IEC officials in the president’s hometown,” Cham added.
But a few days later, supporters of the president’s party dismissed the Gambia Democratic Congress’s allegations as laughable.
Ordinary Gambians are expressing dissatisfaction with the voter registration process along with the political parties. People going to get their voter cards are left to queue on the blazing sun for hours and people who have disabilities or are elderly are not offered the special preferences promised.
In addition, the process is very slow compared to previous years.
Muchereh Gibba, a councilor in the southern Gambian town of Gunjur, said he fears that the slow pace of the registration will leave many voters off the list. He called on the Commission to consider extending the registration time frame.
In response to the concerns from the public and from political parties, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission agreed to an interview about the situation.
In a phone interview, Pa Makan Khan said the complains coming from the political parties are baseless. He said the Commission has a good working relationship with the political party representative present at the registration centers.
But Khan said that the Commission cannot allow parties to interfere with the registration process.
“It’s the responsibility of the electoral commission to ensure that the voter registration is in no way compromised and that is why we are restricting the political party agents from interfering the process,” said Khan, adding that the role of party representatives is “to just observer the process.”
If a party observer has any doubt about the eligibility of any voter, they can raise it an objection up in a court of law afterward, Khan said.
Khan said the allegation from the Gambia Democratic Congress that minors were being registered in the president’s hometown are not true.
“No minor [has] been given a voter card in Mankamang Kunda because we can very well tell who is below the age to get the voter card,” said Khan, “however in the North Bank region, parents are seen bring their children to get the voter card and we are sending them away because they are under the age of voting.”
Khan said they have no plans to extend the dates of the voter registration.
“We are experiencing some problems, but we are overcoming them, let Gambian have faith in us and be sure that we will finish the registration process with all eligible Gambians registered,” Khan said.
Meanwhile, many Gambians especially those in rural Gambia are on the edge of being disenfranchised following the Commission’s declaration that Gambians with an expired identity card, passport or old voters’ card cannot acquire the new voter’s card to participate in the coming election.
Since the Commission began issuing voter cards in late May, many people were sent home without one because they lack new national documents.
Lamin Manneh said he was never informed that having an old national document would restrict him from getting a voters card.
“The IEC and the national civic education did not sensitize us properly about the document especially the expiry part of the it,” said Manneh. “This is an infringement on our right to vote and be voted for in our own country.”
Khan said there is nothing they can do about people who are sent away because the law says anyone who has expired documents is not eligible to register to vote.
Voter registration began May 29, is spreading across the country and is expected to end in July. The Independent Electoral Commission envisions registering over one million eligible Gambians for the December 4 election.
Banna Sabally is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.