Presidential hopefuls seeking to challenge the Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh in the West African country's upcoming 2016 elections will likely be required to pay entry fees nearly 10 times higher than in previous elections, according to a bill passed by parliament this week.
Parliament members voted on Tuesday in favor of the bill mandating that all candidates for next year's presidential elections pay 500,000 dalasis ($12,740), up from a fee of 50,000 ($1,279) in previous polls.
Jammeh still needs to sign the bill into law, but he's expected to move forward with that by the end of the week. He pushed for the legislation, and his party holds all but five seats in the 53-member parliament. When the new election law was announced at the end of June, Yankuba Colley, a member of the pro-Jammeh Alliance for Patriotic Re-orientation and Construction party (APRC), said the bill was meant to weed out candidates who were not serious about their intent to run.
"We welcome this," Colley told the Gambian newspaper the Standard. "The presidential position should not be made cheap, where every Tom, Dick, and Harry can just get up and say, 'Yes, I want to be president.'"
With the average income in the Gambia at $450 a year, the fee would create major obstacles for the average citizen of the tiny West African nation, which lies along the Atlantic coast and is surrounded by Senegal on three of its four sides. The legislation also strikes a blow to the country's small opposition parties, which already face challenges in beating the incumbent Jammeh, who has been in power for more than 20 years.
Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, said the new law is simply a legal form of repression against Jammeh's opponents and critics.
"Gambia's new electoral law unequivocally crushes the country's already battered opposition," Smith told VICE News. He explained that it would take an ordinary citizen three decades of saving, without spending any money, in order to pay the new registration fee.
"This is yet another attempt by Jammeh to firmly and unabashedly entrench himself as Gambia's lifelong president," Smith added.
The 49-year-old dictator is known for silencing dissenters and shoving them in prisons with deplorable conditions. The leader previously also claimed he could cure both AIDS and Ebola, while maintaining that he would rule the Gambia for one billion years — if God allows it. Recently, Gambia helped prevent a proposal from moving forward during a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States that would have set term limits in the region. The Gambia and Togo are currently the only countries in the region without limits.
In May, the leader made headlines when he threatened to slit gay men's throats during a speech in the country's North Bank region. The Gambia is one of 38 countries across Africa where homosexuality is illegal, with Jammeh signing off on a law last year that qualified gay acts as crimes of "aggravated homosexuality" and punishable by life in prison.
The move to raise the stakes for entering elections comes just months after a failed coup attempt against the leader, who rose to power in 1994 through a coup of his own. A group of former Gambian soldiers and self-proclaimed freedom fighters entered the country on December 30 and launched an attack on the state house while Jammeh was out of the country. The attempt was thwarted when Gambian security forces fought back, killing four of the alleged coup plotters and forcing the rest to flee through Senegal.
In the aftermath of the attempted overthrow, Jammeh has cracked down on anyone believed to be affiliated with the plot or simply related to those who participated. He has since detained a teenage son of one of the alleged participants and an elderly mother of another.
Jammeh has also seemingly begun to put obstacles up against the opposition as the election gets closer. In March, police arrested United Democratic Party (UDP) youth leader Ebrima Solo Sandeng for holding a political event instead of the social gathering for which he'd sought out a permit.
In April, UDP leader Ousainou Darbo ended up in a standoff with authorities after an attempt to begin a provincial political tour. He was denied permits for the activity, but chose to move forward with the plans anyway. Police blocked his route through the town of Fass Njaga Choi with roadblocks, and the standoff lasted for four days, when officials agreed to grant a permit to the country's largest opposition party.
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