By Chiekh Sadibou Mane
BANJUL (Reuters) – Gambian leader Yahyah Jammeh, who vowed to rule the tiny West African nation for “a billion years”, was handed a shock election defeat on Friday 22 years after seizing power in a coup.
The electoral commission head declared Adama Barrow president-elect on state television, with 45.5 percent of the vote against Jammeh’s 36.7 percent.
“Having received 263, 515 votes out of the total votes cast in the election, I hereby declare Adama Barrow newly elected to serve as president of the republic of the Gambia,” Alieu Momarr Njai said. He earlier told reporters in Banjul that Jammeh would concede, although he has yet to make a public statement.
Barrow also told Reuters by telephone on Friday he was expecting a phone call from Jammeh conceding defeat.
Defeat and a concession from Jammeh would be momentous.
Earlier this week he said that his “presidency and power are in the hands of Allah and only Allah can take it from me”, and on one occasion even said he would remain in office for “a billion years”.
Voting against Jammeh was a rare show of defiance against a leader human rights groups say routinely crushes dissent by imprisoning and torturing opponents.
Gambians voted on Thursday amid a total blackout of the internet and all international calls, and with land borders sealed, in a poll posing the first serious challenge to Jammeh since he seized power in a coup in 1994.
He previously said he had invented a herbal cure for AIDS that only works on a Thursdays.
He has also arrested hundreds of people on suspicion of being witches or wizards and threatened to slit the throats of and decapitate homosexuals.
Jammeh’s supporters deny abuses and he has often criticised Western powers for meddling in African affairs.
Barrow, who has for the first time united and galvanised Gambia’s opposition, has promised to revive the economy, whose sluggishness pushes thousands of Gambians to flee to Europe in search of a better life.
He has also promised to end human rights abuses and to step down after three years as a boost to democracy.
(Reporting by Cheikh Sadibou Mane in Banjul; Additional reporting by Nellie Peyton in Dakar; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams)