Last Updated Dec 2, 2016 10:30 AM EST
BANJUL, Gambia -- Gambia’s opposition candidate has defeated longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh in the West African country’s presidential vote, an upset victory that could lead to the first transfer of power in more than two decades, the head of the election commission announced Friday.
Adama Barrow won 263,515 votes, or 45 percent of the total, while Jammeh finished in second with 36 percent, Alieu Momarr Njai said. A third candidate, Mama Kandeh, received 17 percent, he said.
“I hereby declare Adama Barrow duly elected president of the Republic of Gambia for the next five years,” Njai said.
He said Jammeh would be calling Barrow “to congratulate him and pray for peace and tranquility.” Jammeh himself had not issued a public statement by early afternoon.
“There will be celebrations, there will be disappointment, but we all know we are all Gambia,” Njai said, calling for peace, tolerance and tranquility to be respected as it was during campaigning.
Gambians voted Thursday by placing marbles into drums marked for each candidate.
Eight opposition parties united behind Barrow, a former businessman, and the campaign period featured large opposition rallies and unprecedented expressions of frustration with Jammeh’s rule.
Nevertheless, Jammeh had projected confidence, saying his victory was all but assured by God and predicting “the biggest landslide in the history of the country” after he voted on Thursday.
“We are happy to be free,” said Omar Amadou Jallow, an opposition leader for the People’s Progressive Party, which joined the coalition that backed Barrow. “We are able to free the Gambian people from the clutches of dictatorship, and we are now going to make sure Gambia becomes a bastion of peace and coalition. Our foundation will be based on national reconciliation.”
Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994 and then swept elections in 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011 after a 2002 constitutional amendment removed presidential term limits. Critics say those earlier elections were not free and fair.
Human rights groups have accused Jammeh of ordering the deaths of countless political opponents as well as targeting journalists and gays and lesbians.
All internet and international phone service was cut on election day in a bid by Jammeh to thwart unrest.
If Jammeh agrees to step down peacefully, it would demonstrate that even Africa’s most entrenched leaders can be brought down if opposition politicians overcome their divisions and unite, said Jeffrey Smith, a human rights activist and founding director of Vanguard Africa, a U.S.-based group that worked with Gambia’s opposition coalition.
“This is going to have resonance way beyond the tiny borders of Gambia,” Smith said, describing the result as “a momentous occasion for the region writ large.”