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Why Gambians won't stop voting with marbles – BBC News

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sierra Leonean-Gambian writer Ade Daramy says The Gambia has witnessed a remarkable flourishing of democracy over the last five years, but its curious system of electing leaders remains unchanged.
Most Gambians I know are quite proud of their unique voting system.
When they go to the polls on Saturday 4 December to elect a president, ballot papers will not be used.
Instead, on arrival at a polling station, and after their ID has been verified, a voter will be directed to a series of drums painted in the party colours of the different candidates.
Protruding from the top of each drum is a pipe into which the voter will slot a marble handed over by an election official.
As it drops a bell sounds so officials are able to hear if anyone tries to vote more than once.
When the polls close, the marbles from each barrel are counted and tallied – as would be done with ballot papers.
This way of voting was introduced after independence in 1965 because of The Gambia's high illiteracy rate.
A number of reforms have been ushered in since Yayha Jammeh reluctantly left power after losing presidential elections in 2016.
Some election officials had secretly hoped that ditching marbles would be one of them.
They had argued that with the opening up of the democratic space and the possibility of more candidates participating in future elections, the marbles and drums might prove too cumbersome.
In the past only about three drums were needed at each polling station.
During Mr Jammeh's 22 years in power there seemed little point in contesting.
In fact The Gambia has only had three presidents in its history.
Mr Jammeh seized power in a coup in 1994, ousting independence leader Dawda Jawara.
Many observers concede the only election Mr Jammeh went on to win fairly was in 1996, when there was still a honeymoon period after the coup and his authoritarian excesses had not yet taken hold.
Subsequent elections they say were fixed in his favour, and his defeat in 2016 seemed to take him – and his successor Adama Barrow – by surprise.
It had largely been a two-horse race, with Mr Barrow being a consensus candidate chosen by a coalition of opposition parties. The third candidate, Mama Kandeh, took about 17% of the vote.
President Barrow is running again, this time on his newly formed party's ticket.
At one stage it looked like he would face 22 candidates – a nightmarish scenario for the election commission given the marble-and-drum system remains in place as there was no real political will to change it.
To its relief these candidates have since been whittled down to six – still a lot for a country of approximately 2.2 million people.
That there are all these candidates is a testament to how much the country has changed, and is still changing.
In times past, people were either too scared to contest against Mr Jammeh or deemed it a waste of time.
These days, in what is regularly referred to as "The New Gambia", that fear has gone and freedom of speech abounds.
A comedian called Wagan has a weekly TV show in which he pokes fun at all the main politicians including the president – something unthinkable five years ago.
Journalists comment on anything without fear of being carted off, tortured or killed as happened under Mr Jammeh.
Some of these atrocities came to light during the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which heard testimony from nearly 400 people from January 2019 until May 2021.
It delivered its 17-volume final report last week – the president now has six months to respond to it and its recommendations.
This means it will fall to whoever wins on 4 December to begin the real process of healing the wounds left behind by Mr Jammeh's tenure.
Even from exile in Equatorial Guinea, the former president is trying to cast his shadow over the polls.
More on the truth commission:
The 56-year-old remains a divisive figure – exemplified by a fall-out with the party he founded, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
It has gone into a formal alliance with the party of President Barrow – much to the annoyance of Mr Jammeh, who issued a series of audio recordings backing Mr Kandeh instead.
But the real shadow that has been cast over The Gambia, like the rest of the world, is the Covid pandemic.
The country with its beautiful beaches and abundant wildlife relies heavily on tourism and was hit hard by the travel restrictions. Many people lost their jobs.
There is now a trickle of tourists but much more needs to happen to get back to pre-Covid levels.
Even before coronavirus, the country contributed a disproportionate number of migrants seeking to get to Europe for its size.
Much, though not all, is driven by unemployment.
For whoever gains the most marbles on 4 December, developing and creating opportunities in The Gambia to make it more attractive to residents not just tourists will be the greatest challenge.
Six candidates in the running:
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