This small West African country is a favorite holiday paradise for Western tourists. But behind the image of chalky white beaches is the hegemony of brutal powers that prevails. President Yahya AJJ Jammeh is taking new steps to crack down on political opponents and hold power.
President Jammeh took power in a bloodless coup in 1994. The young officer thus overthrew President Dawda Jawara, who had ruled the country since the liberation from British colonial rule in 1965. Jammeh and his supporters first formed a military government, but two years later a new constitution introduced, and the country switched to civilian rule. After retiring from the position of officer, Jammeh was himself elected president in 1996.
Since then he has been sitting at the presidential post. The last election was in 2006. Then Jammeh and the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction got 67 percent of the vote. Although international observers considered the election relatively free, opposition politicians have expressed strong distrust of the outcome. The voter apathy was also record high, and just over a third took the road to the polling stations.
The largest opposition parties in Gambia are the People’s Democratic Party, the National Alliance for Democracy and Development and the National Reconciliation Party.
Little respect for human rights
One of the first things Jammeh’s military government did when they took power was to ban all political parties. In 2001, this ban was dissolved, but harassment and threats to political opponents have put a stalemate on the wheels of a thriving political community. In recent years, Jammeh has shown increasing autocratic tendencies, and he has even stated in national media that he will “kill anyone who wants to destabilize the country,” including human rights defenders and anyone who cooperates with them.
To control the press, the president introduced two new media laws in 2004. One gives the right to arrest the press, the other increased licensing costs, and this has limited the media diversity. Reporters Without Borders considers the situation in the country as difficult, and on the world’s press freedom index, Gambia is ranked 137th out of 175 countries. In recent years, more than 30 journalists have fled in exile, and several have been harassed, threatened or arrested. In addition, some have “disappeared.”
Freedom of expression and human rights have long been an illusion in The Gambia, and in the spring of 2009, the situation worsened when six of the country’s most high-profile independent journalists were arrested. They were members of the Gambian Journalist Association (GPU), and were charged and convicted of writing and publishing criticism by the president. They were all sentenced to a minimum of two years in prison. The incident sparked strong reactions internationally, and Ambroise Pierre of Reporters Without Borders characterized the arrests of journalists as “one of the biggest setbacks to press freedom throughout West Africa.” However, the journalists were pardoned by the president during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
In the spring of 2009, President Jammeh also declared a fight against another civilian group, so-called witches and wizards. According to Amnesty International, up to a thousand people have been arrested within a few months. The arrested were released after a few days of “cleansing” with a brew they had to drink and lubricate the body with. Subsequently, both deaths and serious illness and stigma have been reported as a result.
The country’s economy
The 11,300 square kilometer land has few natural resources. According to the AbbreviationFinder, Gambia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a gross national product per capita of $ 1,300 in 2009. Gambia has a tropical climate with long periods of drought, and only one-sixth of the land is cultivable. Still, about 75 percent of the population lives by agriculture and animal husbandry. Peanuts are the country’s most important export item, and together with peanut oil, this agricultural product accounts for 90 percent of export revenue.
The Gambia’s 80 kilometers of coastline and alluring white sand beaches have contributed to the country becoming one of the largest tourist markets in West Africa. The tourism industry is an important source of income, but as it is often governed by foreign interests, it provides limited jobs for the local population.
Incidentally, the president has promoted neoliberal economic policies. Privatization of public institutions has contributed to the loss of jobs, and unemployment in the country is now very high. The result is that a larger proportion of the population has a lower standard of living. However, economic growth has been strong and inflation relatively low.
The relationship with other donors has become more tense as Jammeh has taken longer steps toward his monarchy. Among other things, the country was criticized in 2004 by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for poor financial management and for misinformation about the financial situation. Against this backdrop, the country received less financial support, and the IMF announced that deletion of its debt would be postponed. Two years later, the United States withdrew all financial support because of the country’s human rights violations and democratic setbacks. However, Norway wiped out Gambia’s debt of NOK 13 million in 2008.
According to the United Nations Index on Human Development (HDI), Gambia is ranked 168th out of 182. In line with recommendations from, among others, the IMF, the government has advocated an education reform that has led to both building schools and educating teachers. It has also become free for all girls to attend school. This is a positive step in a country where only 40 percent of the population over the age of 15 can read and write.
The Gambia’s population is young, and 43 percent of the population is under 15. Urbanization is increasing, and over 57 percent of the population now lives in cities.
More than 90 percent of the population are Muslims, and the majority of the rest are Christian or belong to various natural religions.
The largest ethnic group is the Mandingo (42 percent), Fulani (18 percent) and Wolof (16 percent).
Best in football
Football has become a very popular activity and many young boys dream of a career in foreign clubs. The sport is now the most popular in the whole country, due in part to the commitment to youth football and the success of the youth team for players under 17 (U17). In April 2009, the U17 national team won the African Championship for the second time, and the congratulations did not wait. The president, who is a very active supporter himself, gave the players each their appreciation equivalent to around NOK 250,000 for the effort.
Area: 11 295 km2 (49th largest)
Population: 1.7 million
Population density: 147 per km2
Urban population: 56 percent
Largest city: Banjul – approx. 400 000
GDP per capita: $ 636
Economic growth: 4.9 percent
HDI Position: 168