Fabakary Jammeh and Kristin Palitza
Displayed with permission from dpa German Press Agency

Banjul (dpa) – Gambia shut down all internet and telephone lines in the small West African nation Thursday as voting for the presidency began, local newspaper Fatu Network reported.

The shutdown, which affects state-owned as well as private telecommunications and internet providers, comes as President Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year-rule is seriously challenged for the first time.

The former army colonel, who came to power during a 1994 military coup and rules the Islamic Republic with an iron fist, is running for a fifth five-year term against two other candidates.

Jammeh’s main rival is Adama Barrow, who has the support of seven political parties and is popular with the poverty-stricken West African nation’s largely unemployed youth.

His fiercest rival, Adama Barrow, has the support of seven political parties and is popular with the country’s largely unemployed youth. The businessman promises to restore democracy and the rule of law and to free all political prisoners.

Also in the running is Mama Kandeh, the leader of the Gambia Democratic Congress, the only opposition party that did not join forces with Barrow.

Kandeh, a former parliamentarian and member of the ruling party, announced his candidacy after falling out with Jammeh and being expelled from government – a move political observers say is unprecedented in Gambia.

All three candidates were born in the same year, 1965.

Jammeh has always been blunt about his disregard for democracy.

“Let me warn those evil vermin called the opposition, if you want to destabilize this country, I will bury you 9 feet deep,” the president said during a public address in May.

Jammeh’s grip on power has remained firm, despite the fact that his government is widely accused of corruption, human rights abuses and an incessant crackdown on the political opposition, government critics and journalists.

Roughly 887,000 Gambians out of a population of 1.9 million people are eligible to cast their vote at one of the 1,422 polling stations until 1700 GMT.

But they will vote in an atmosphere of repression and fear after campaigning was overshadowed by arbitrary arrests and torture of dozens of opposition activists.

Since April, more than 90 opposition activists have been arrested for participating in peaceful protests, with 30 sentenced to three-year prison terms, the rights group said. Two opposition activists died in custody.

The European Union was denied a request to send election monitors to observe this year’s polls. An African Union observer mission has, however, been accredited.

The election is won by a simple majority. Results are expected Friday.