Rebublic of the Gambia

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Rebublic of the Gambia

Type of Government

After a military coup in 1994, a new Gambian constitution provided for separate legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government and a guarantee of human rights. In practice, however, the country has been ruled since that time by an autocratic executive, Yahya Jammeh (1965–), whose grip on the country has only tightened since failed coup attempts in 2000 and 2006.


The Republic of the Gambia, or The Gambia for short, is located on the western coast of Africa. The smallest country in Africa, it is a narrow slice of land following the Gambia River for two hundred miles to its mouth in the Atlantic and is surrounded on three sides by Senegal. The first records of Gambia are derived from the records of Muslim traders who crossed Africa to establish posts for the slave and mineral trade. Islam gained numerous converts in the region, and 92 percent of the population is Muslim today. The area was settled by Wolof, Malinke, and Fulani people in the thirteenth century and became part of the Mali Empire in the fourteenth century.

The Portuguese took over the slave trade in the fifteenth century and then sold off trading rights along the Gambia River to the British. During the seventeenth century the English and French vied for control of the slave trade in the region until the Treaty of Versailles (1783) gave England uncontested possession of The Gambia. Though the British government officially abolished the slave trade in 1807, illegal trading persisted for decades. Over the course of the slave trade era, more than three million slaves were taken from the region.

The present capital of Banjul was established as a military post in 1816; from 1821 to 1888, The Gambia was administered by the British government of Sierra Leone. In 1889 it achieved separate status again, with Banjul becoming a Crown colony and the rest of the area a British protectorate. Executive and legislative councils were established in 1901, and the area began a long journey toward independence.

During World War II (1939–1945), Gambian soldiers assisted in Allied operations in Burma, and the nation became an important port for naval and aerial operations. Following the war, the independence movement accelerated. Universal adult suffrage was introduced in 1960 and a thirty-four-member House of Representatives was established. The office of prime minister was created in 1962, and in the general elections of that same year Dawda Kairaba Jawara (1924–), the leader of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), became the first prime minister supervising a year-long transition towards self-governance. In 1965 the country became a constitutional monarchy (recognizing the British monarch) and an independent nation within the British Commonwealth.

Government Structure

The Gambia’s executive branch is led by a president, elected to five-year terms, who acts as both head of state and head of government. The president appoints a vice president and cabinet to assist in running the government and governing the country. There are no term limits on the presidency, and the chief executive wields extensive authority.

The legislature is unicameral, with the fifty-three-member National Assembly responsible for enacting legislation. Forty-eight of its members are elected by universal suffrage every five years; five of the members are appointed by the president.

The country’s legal system is a mixture of English common law; the law of the Koran (the Muslim holy book), which is called sharia; and African traditional law. For example, magistrate and divisional courts determine most civil cases, but Muslim courts may apply sharia law in some cases involving Muslim citizens, while in traditional matters, chiefs rule on customary law and local affairs. The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal in The Gambia.

The country is divided into five administrative divisions—Lower River, Central River, North Bank, Upper River, and Western—and one city, Banjul. These are further subdivided into 35 districts, each administered by a chief who in turn is assisted by councilors and village mayors.

Political Parties and Factions

Though several political parties exist, The Gambia is essentially a one-party state, with the authoritarian Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) wielding power. The party came into being in 1996 to support Yahya Jammeh in his bid to become elected president. Jammeh, who led a coup deposing then president Jawara in 1994, won the 1996, the 2001, and the 2006 presidential elections, and his party took 42 seats in the National Assembly in 2006.

Five smaller parties coalesced in 2005 into the National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD). Their goal was to end the rule of Jammeh and return power to the people. The parties forming this coalition were the People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), the National Democratic Action Movement (NDAM), the National Reconciliation Party (NRP), the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and the United Democratic Party (UDP). Of these, the PPP was the oldest, formed in 1958. Under the leadership of Dawda Kairaba Jawara, it held power from 1970 to 1994 when Jammeh seized power, suspended the constitution, and banned opposing political parties. The ban on some opposition parties (but not the PPP) was lifted for the 1996 elections. It was not until 2001 that the ban was lifted on all political parties.

Major Events

On April 24, 1970, The Gambia became a republic following a majority-approved referendum, and Jawara was the first president. Jawara stayed in power for a quarter of a century, being reelected in 1982, 1987, and 1992. He survived a left-wing coup attempt in 1981, and in the following year led his country to join with Senegal in the Confederation of Senegambia. This confederation sought to combine the armed forces of the two nations and to unify their economies and currencies. However, The Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.

During his long years in office, Jawara supported democratic institutions, but critics also complained of corruption in his administration and of a general decline in the quality of governance at all levels. He was deposed from office in 1994 when the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, or AFPRC, seized power in a bloodless military coup. Jammeh was chairman of the AFPRC and became head of state. While the junta suspended the constitution and banned political activity, Jawara took refuge in an American warship on call in The Gambia at the time. A failed counter-coup was staged the next year in an attempt to return the country to civilian rule. Jammeh, however, consolidated his power. Facing censure and criticism from the West, he turned to other nations, such as Iran, Cuba, and Taiwan, for support.

To secure legitimacy for his regime, Jammeh scheduled presidential elections for 1996; however, leading opposition parties such as the PPP were banned from participation. Not surprisingly, Jammeh won more than 55 percent of the vote. Established as president, he called for legislative elections in early 1997. Again, with major opposition parties excluded from participation in this election, Jammeh’s APRC took 32 of the 45 contested seats.

Despite the nominal return to civilian government, Jammeh’s administration continued to wield extraordinary powers. The government cited a coup attempt in 2000 as grounds for increasing its control over the media; many foreign observers, however, felt the government was only using the alleged coup as a pretext for a government clampdown on political action. Government clashes with student protesters resulted in the deaths of fourteen. Jammeh’s government postponed local elections, kept up its campaign against the freedom of assembly for political parties, and relied increasingly on the death penalty. On social issues, Jammeh was strongly opposed to women’s rights and supported the practice of female genital mutilation.

In the 2001 elections, all political parties were allowed to participate. However, with Jammeh’s control of the media, other candidates did not receive the same public exposure as the president. Opposition parties including the UDP, the PPP, and the Gambia People’s Party (GPP) formed a coalition but were unable to defeat the incumbent. Jammeh only took 53 percent of the vote amid charges of voter fraud. Some observers complained that thousands of voters of the Diola people, which is Jammeh’s own ethnic group, were transported illegally across the border from Senegal to vote. In legislative elections, the ruling APRC took 45 of the 48 contested seats.

Following the election, Jammeh granted amnesty to the former president Jawara, who had been living in exile, on condition that he not participate in politics. In 2002 the government continued to tighten its control on the media when the National Assembly passed a “gag” rule to limit supposedly sensationalist reporting. In 2004 a new law was passed providing for journalists found guilty of libel or sedition to be jailed. This was followed by the murder of a well-known newspaper editor who was a strong critic of the government.

In 2006 a planned military coup attempt against Jammeh was uncovered, and its leaders were arrested or fled the country. In the 2006 presidential elections, Jammeh took two-thirds of the popular vote in a contest that pitted his APRC against the five-party coalition NADD.

Twenty-First Century

The Gambia faces several important political issues in the twenty-first century, including the continuing effort to maintain the democratic system and prevent the outbreak of violence between political factions. In addition, there are ongoing questions over the role that Islamic law should play in the country’s legal system. President Jammeh has said that he wants to bring Koranic law formally into the legal system on an equal footing with the civil code. Such an action poses the threat of a strong president using Islamic law as a tool for political repression.

On the international level, the Gambian government has been forced to address the arrival of thousands of refugees from Senegal’s Casamance region, largely in 2006. Though The Gambia and Senegal signed a friendship and cooperation treaty in 1991, tensions between the two countries have persisted as the recent refugee crisis has led to an increase in arms dealing, smuggling, and crime along the nation’s borders.

Hughes, Arnold, and Harry A. Gailey. Historical Dictionary of the Gambia. 3rd ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

Hughes, Arnold, and David Perfect. A Political History of the Gambia, 1816–1994. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006.

Koslow, Philip. Senegambia: Land of the Lion. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 1997.