Gambia residents thrilled as country faces first vote in 13 years

Gambia’s first electoral test in 13 years is going well so far, with the opposition’s candidate for presidential elections in December heavily ahead in the vote count. Security forces shot into the air and…

Gambia residents thrilled as country faces first vote in 13 years

Gambia’s first electoral test in 13 years is going well so far, with the opposition’s candidate for presidential elections in December heavily ahead in the vote count.

Security forces shot into the air and tear gas in a few provinces Friday as police ordered people to gather and allow them to show off their most intricate stones, which are important to Gambian culture.

The ancient marbles, each a 1.7-carat emerald cut from the largest of the volcanic islands in the Gambia, are the world’s richest stones. The magnificent rocks have been saved from illegal collectors and help bolster the nation’s culture and tourism.

The Jan. 21 vote was called following two presidents’ rule over this tiny West African nation

“Marbles are one of the few things that our savanna environment has,” said Wa Iyeh, a staff member at the Marston Marbles Hotel, where tourists can buy souvenirs. “We spend money traveling all over the world to see other stones and then we can come here and have a piece of marble at home.”

We interviewed Iyeh at the hotel after the owners, who had feared the stone collecting tradition might go extinct, had put out a challenge to anyone to find emeralds.

“Everyone with a stone from the Marston Marbles is so proud of it,” she said.

Polling stations were mostly peaceful and quiet in the capital, Banjul, where security forces stationed themselves at some polling places, making it difficult to get to others.

“It’s so disappointing that the police came to my polling station,” said Habiba Yagja, who waited until all other polling stations in Banjul had closed for the day before voting.

Police spokesman Armand Lamin told The Associated Press the move was necessary to reassure voters.

Voting was peaceful, free and fair, said Delta Group Foundation’s Sanneh Barrow, one of the coordinators for the vote.

The elections come after Jan. 19, when a failed coup against Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled The Gambia for 22 years, scared many voters away from the polls.

Jammeh, who had come to power in a 1994 coup and ruled uncontested for 22 years, said he wouldn’t step down, sparking rumors he might try to retake power from the military. Gambians awaited the election that’s now being held almost a year later.

“Jammeh is not allowed to win again. The people, with their great will, will not allow that,” Barrow said.

Alhagie Sanyang, a 72-year-old tourist guide, said he planned to go to another polling station after waiting in line for about an hour to cast his ballot.

“When I look at Gambia, it’s beautiful. It’s my country. And I have seen so many things of Gambia. I like them,” he said.

Gambia on Jan. 21 defied the rest of Africa, holding peaceful elections to elect another leader for the first time in its history. Elections in Gambia are closely watched because the nation has few political opponents, Jammeh’s reported support for al-Qaida’s growing influence and a reputation for being intolerant.

Earlier in the month, Gambian authorities released from prison a lawyer and anti-corruption activists after Jammeh placed them under house arrest on Jan. 4.

Rights groups protested over the arrests and many people who attended that final election rally spoke out against the putschists’ attempts to subvert the vote. Jammeh stepped down on Jan. 19 after years of pressure to step down.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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