- Title: Gambian leader faces rare challenge as voting begins
- Date: 1st December 2016
- Summary: PHOTO OF OPPOSITION CANDIDATE MAMMA KANDEH ON BALLOT DRUM
- Embargoed: 16th December 2016 11:05
- Keywords: Banjul Gambia election Jammeh Barrow
- Location: BANJUL, GAMBIA
- City: BANJUL, GAMBIA
- Country: Gambia
- Reuters ID: LVA0025B1YJIF
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text:Gambian President Yahya Jammeh faces a rare challenge from a revitalised and united opposition in an election on Thursday (December 1) as he seeks to extend his 22-year grip on power in the West African nation.
Jammeh, 51, seized power as a young army officer in a 1994 coup and has maintained his control over Gambia in four subsequent elections despite growing international concern over his government's deteriorating human rights record.
Best known internationally as one of Africa's most eccentric rulers, Jammeh claims to have invented a herbal cure for AIDS, declared Gambia an Islamic Republic in a snap decision last year and once claimed he will rule for "a billion years."
Polls were due to open at 8am (0800 GMT), however it was impossible to confirm that voting began on time at all polling stations across the country. International journalists in the country reported that both internet and international phone signals had been jammed, forcing them to file dispatches by satellite phone.
At times of potential unrest, some African governments have cut off internet access in a bid to avoid potential challenges to their rule, such as in Burkina Faso where social media played a key role in driving out President Blaise Compaore in 2014.
The Gambian communications minister could not be reached for comment.
Jammeh has rejected outside criticism and last month announced Gambia's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, a body he says is biased against Africans and which his spokesman dubbed the "International Caucasian Court".
This week's poll comes at the end of a turbulent year that has given hope to opposition supporters that change may be on the horizon.
During campaigning, rallies for Jammeh's main challenger, businessman Adama Barrow, have attracted crowds of thousands and continued into the early hours in a rare show of opposition support.
Eight opposition parties have rallied behind businessman Adama Barrow, calling for human rights and justice reforms and a revamping of a stuttering economy that has made Gambians more likely than any other Africans to migrate illegally to Europe.
Jammeh, dressed in white robes and carrying a copy of the Koran, also drew large crowds during rallies.
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