Notes on the upcoming Gambian presidential election
We want an election free of violence because we have seen what is happening in other countries but we in The Gambia should nurture the peace that God has given us” – Mustapha Caraylo, Independent Electoral Commission Chairman
‘Tis the season of Gambia’s long-awaited presidential election. On November 24, 2011, nearly half a million Gambians will visit the polls. Unfortunately, a climate of fear surrounds the elections. For one, opposition parties will only be allowed to campaign and be given access to the media for eleven days (Nov. 12-22), rather than the four weeks they’d been previously allocated. Presumably, such a law also pertains to maintaining an official web presence. Even if social media accounts and websites for the vying parties appear on November 12, illiteracy poses a major hurdle. In all likelihood, the electoral results won’t change much from the last elections in 2006. At least, there was hardly any violence during those elections…
Either way, the physical voting process certainly does not bode well for the integration of social media or the Internet to spread information. The Gambia is the only nation in the world that uses a marble system to track votes. (The BBC does a good job explaining the process in a 2006 article.) The reason? High illiteracy. Except the marble system, first used in 1965, has not changed with the times. Apparently it works so well that there is no need to spend time and money to buy new equipment and re-educate the voters.
That said, Gambians are using the Internet to stay abreast of the November 24 elections:
As of early November 2011, political parties in Gambia are not embracing Facebook. APRC has 27 fans. Interestingly, NADD (an opposition coalition) currently has 94 fans, suggesting that Gambian Internet users are more likely to support change. Two Facebook pages exist for incumbent President Yahya Jammeh, but neither is official. Still, the two pages boast 5,912 and 2,316 fans, respectively. Neither has been updated in months. Still, the presence of the pages has lead to confusion whether President Jammeh is behind the content. Similarly, a “Vote for President Jammeh 2011 Election” is clearly not backed by the APRC. The United Democratic Party (UDP) has an official website that is updated a couple of times per week with campaign news, but no Facebook page could be found.
- @africanelection covers all elections across the continent, including The Gambia
- @thegambiavoice actively Tweets ‘uncensored’ news from The Gambia
- searches for ‘Gambia Jammeh‘ produce plenty of results, but most are news and not discussion
The Independent Electoral Commission is an excellent resource and is the main success story of how Gambia is using the Internet to keep citizens informed. The homepage provides easy-to-understand visuals for Internet users with limited literary skills:
- A Flash logo inspires nationalism while demonstrating how to vote. It reads, “One citizen, one vote…you are part of 1.3 million Gambians” as a marble traverses the river and lands in a hand which places it into a drum.
- A header slideshow of images promotes “fair-play, integrity & transparency”. They serve as a visual guide to the election. Slides show how to maintain peace and order and how to say no to bribery. Other slides explain how a vote is an expression of freedom of speech. A couple of others reiterate how to cast the ballot token and urge to “Join the Democracy Journey.”
The rest of the site provides written instructions on how to register and what to expect on election day. Of course, the question remains how many potential voters actually visit the IEC website. One downside of IEC.gm is that the resource does not appear mobile-friendly.
SMS is not widely used in rural areas. Internet penetration remains low. Fewer than 10% of Gambians (less than 200,000) use the Internet and only 70,000 of 1.8 million (~4%) of Gambians use Facebook. 3G is certainly new to the country in the last five years. However, 3G service from Gamtel is limited to Banjul. (The Greater Banjul population was 357,000 in 2003 and was home to 26% of Gambians.) Access costs and smartphone costs remain high – unfortunate, since when paired with appropriate content, touch devices are extremely handy in areas of low literacy.
In 2006, 670,000 registered voters made 393,000 valid votes for a participation rate of 59%. In other words, approximately 25% of Gambians voted in the 2006 presidential election.
Combining the Internet and voter stats, we see that if the Gambian Internet user is as likely to vote as a non-Internet user, then only 2.5% of voters in 2006 (assuming they are still able to vote) now use the Internet. Of course, the number of voters in the 2011 election who also use the Internet will be much higher than 2.5%. One reason is the growing youth population who is more in tune with technology than ever before. Many of these youth were too young to vote in the 2006 presidential elections. Additionally, it has been found that Internet access increases voter participation (at least in the United States). Therefore, at best, no more than 1-in-10 Gambian voters also accesses the Internet.
Still, even if digital technology is not yet necessary for the election to function, certain issues from the 2006 elections could have been mitigated with the use of social media. A report by Jerome Leyraud of ACE Project describes the context of the 2006 presidential elections in the Gambia. At least two areas stand out:
- After heavy rains, elections were extended by 2 1/2 hours. However, some polling officials were not aware of the time extension despite radio and television broadcasts. Social media, or even email, could have kept polling officials up-to-date.
- State-run Gambia Radio & Television was found to provide one-sided election coverage. Opposition platforms and parties were often ignored. Private radio often avoided politics altogether. The Internet can provide a unbiased medium for the discussion and dissemination of information.
In closing, Gambia’s biggest challenge from the upcoming election isn’t violence like the past couple of days in Liberia (or Kenya in 2008). Moreover, the issue doesn’t seem to be transparency, as demonstrated by the IEC’s commitment to fair elections. Instead, the obstacle is the dominance of state media and the fear of the current regime to lose power. Under the current regime, most voters cannot understand that a change of leadership is possible. Fortunately, with some confidence on the behalf of early adopters, the Internet can make that happen. We’ll be watching closely on November 12 when the official campaigning process is allowed to begin.
Further reading: “Gambia’s Pre-Election Jitters,” AfricanDictator.org, Sept 1, 2011. http://www.africandictator.org/?p=4071