Tiny Gambia gets hasty makeover for Africa summit

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BRUFUT, Gambia, June 18: It looks much like any tourist resort with its neat rows of modest villas, except for the white flagpoles standing on each pristine lawn.

But come early July and the African Union summit here in Gambia, No. 127 will become home from home for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, sandwiched, alphabetically, between Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Madagascar's Marc Ravalomanana, with Zimbabwe's veteran leader Robert Mugabe opposite.

''Every single villa is being lived in by a president, so it's all got to look exactly the same,'' said building tycoon Mustapha ''Taf'' Njie, showing off the villa earmarked for Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.

The five-star hotel initially planned to house the heads of state has not been built. Instead, Njie has thrown up 52 identical three-bedroom bungalows complete with satellite TV, computer and other facilities any visiting president may need.

Hospitality is second nature in Gambia, a poor West African country which welcomes an estimated 100,000 tourists a year, mainly from former colonial ruler Britain and Scandinavia.

A visiting diplomat congratulates Njie on the presidential lodgings being ready in time, unlike some previous summits.

But Njie is not resting on his laurels. A few yards away his small army of workmen are building a row of larger homes to house some of the security detachments -- including, maybe, Gaddafi's crack female bodyguard brigade.


 Mile upon mile of new street lights have gone up for the summit, but with most of the Greater Banjul area prone to power cuts of up to 16 hours a day, they are still not working.

Italy has donated two generators and fuel to run them during the summit, and the government says a new privately-funded power station should be operational in time for the meeting, doubling generating capacity in the country of just 1.5 million people.

President Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a military coup 12 years ago, gave power company chiefs added incentive to assist European Union technicians in repairing the existing station -- he threatened to throw them in jail if they didn't.

For local people fewer power cuts may be one of the positive spinoffs from a summit which, however briefly, will put their tiny country on the international stage and potentially secure a spot on the lucrative international conference circuit.

''It's a new challenge for Gambia. Most hotels are for tourists, they are not set up for anything like this,'' said Kinza Jawara-N'jai, renovating a large hotel to house hundreds of the journalists expected to attend the summit.

The airport is being extended to fit dozens of presidential jets and phone company Gamtel is buying in extra Internet bandwidth from neighbouring Senegal to keep delegates wired.

''It's going to stretch the Gambia to the limit, even with AU help, but my feeling is they will make it work,'' said British High Commissioner Eric Jenkinson.

''They're proud of the fact they have got this summit and they think it will do a lot for the country's image, which does not always get the highest profile for the right reasons.'' Not that the choice of venue went unchallenged. After an opposition newspaper was closed and two editors detained following an attempted coup in March, press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders urged the African Union to rethink whether it should hold the summit in Gambia.

Since then, several other journalists have been taken in for questioning over another opposition publication, a US-based online newspaper, but the campaign to move the summit has gathered little pace.

The July 1-2 summit should be considering a draft democracy charter condemning coups, corruption and promoting a free press.

Jammeh, standing for re-election in September, campaigned for the last election five years ago by saying he had already won and threatening to shoot anyone who disrupted polling. In April, he said he planned to rule for 30 more years.


 The Senegambia beach area, the heart of Gambia's tourist trade and packed during Europe's winter, is in its low season but Gambian Restaurant The Chossaan has stayed open especially for the summit.

''We're expecting it to be busy. We are waiting for our people,'' said waiter Mike Amadou.

Nearby two young European women wearing skimpy bikinis sit outside a bar, a reminder of Gambia's more usual tourist season visitors.

Elsewhere the summit is an excuse for local people to smarten up their neighbourhoods, even if the visiting heads of state are unlikely to venture into the poorer parts of town.

First division soccer player Ismaila Ngum, 27, rounded up people to spruce up part of the Crab Island district of Gambia's mangrove-fringed capital Banjul.

Kerbstones and signposts have been repainted yellow and black, and the community is halfway through clearing mud from the deep roadside gutters in time for the looming rainy season.

''We are going to finish everything before the African Union summit,'' Ngum said over the wail of prayers from the mosque next door. ''The people are excited.''


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