BANJUL – Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia’s authoritarian president of 22 years, has suffered a surprise defeat in presidential elections.
He will be replaced by a property developer, Adama Barrow, who won more than 45 per cent of the vote.
Mr Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994, has not yet spoken since the results were announced.
Electoral commission chief Alieu Momar Njie Njie has appealed for calm as the country entered uncharted waters.
The West African state has not had a smooth transfer of power since independence from Britain in 1965.
Mr Barrow won 263,515 votes (45.5 per cent) in Thursday’s election, while President Jammeh took 212,099 (36.7 per cent), according to the electoral commission. A third party candidate, Mama Kandeh, won 102,969 (17.8 per cent).
“There will be celebrations, there will be disappointment, but we all know we are all Gambia,” Mr Njie said, after announcing the results on Friday.
Born in 1965 in a small village near the eastern market town of Basse, Mr Barrow moved to London in the 2000s where he reportedly used to work as a security guard at an Argos catalogue store, while studying for real estate qualifications.
He returned toGambia in 2006 to set up his own property company, which he still runs today.
The 51-year-old won the presidential nomination in 2016 to lead an opposition coalition of seven parties – the largest alliance of its kind since independence, according to the AFP news agency.
On the electoral campaign, Mr Barrow – who has never held public office – promised to revive the country’s economy, which has forced thousands of Gambians to make the perilous journey to Europe.
He has criticised the lack of a two-term limit on the presidency and says he would introduce a three-year transitional government made up from members of the opposition coalition.
President Jammeh’s defeat comes as a huge surprise. Despite a surge of support for an opposition broadly united behind one candidate, most people expected the status quo to prevail.
Hopes weren’t high for a peaceful transfer of power, with a crackdown on opposition leaders months before the polls, the banning of international observers or post-election demonstrations, and then the switching off of the internet.
But in a place where glass beads are used in place of ballot papers, it seems that the marbles have spoken.
The unseating of an incumbent president is not the usual way politics goes in this part of the world – but it’s becoming popular in West Africa at least, with Muhammadu Buhari unseating Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria just last year.
Former businessman Adama Barrow now has his chance to tackle the poverty and unemployment which drives so many young Gambians to join the Mediterranean migrant trail every year.
The president has yet to give a public statement on the result.
But Yahya Jammeh, a devout Muslim, once said he would rule for “one billion years” if “Allah willed it”.
Earlier this week, the 51-year-old said that his “presidency and power are in the hands of Allah and only Allah can take it from me”.
After announcing the results, Mr Njie said President Jammeh would call Mr Barrow to concede – though there has been no indication that this has happened.
“It’s really unique that someone who has been ruling this country for so long has accepted defeat,” he told reporters.
Mr Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup 22 years ago and has ruled the country with an iron fist ever since.
Human rights groups have accused Mr Jammeh, who has in the past claimed he can cure Aids and infertility, of repression and abuses of the media, the opposition and gay people.
In 2014, he called homosexuals “vermin” and said the government would deal with them as it would malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Several previous opposition leaders were imprisoned after taking part in a rare protest in April.
Mr Barrow has previously described him a “soulless dictator” and promised to undo some of Mr Jammeh’s more controversial moves, including reversing decisions to remove The Gambia from the Commonwealth and the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Celebrations erupted in the capital, Banjul, with Gambians shouting: “We are free. We won’t be slaves of anyone.”
During the campaign, the country’s mostly young population seemed to be yearning for change, said the BBC’s Umaru Fofana in the capital, Banjul.
On voting day the internet and international phone calls were banned across the country.
Observers from the European Union (EU) and the West African regional bloc Ecowas did not attend the vote.
Gambian officials opposed the presence of Western observers, but the EU said before the vote it was staying away out of concern about the fairness of the voting process.
The African Union did despatch a handful of observers to supervise the vote, however.