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The Gambia – Expert Briefing

  • The Gambia is a republic; since December 2015, an Islamic Republic
  • Elections are held every five years in a multi-party political system, but in practice The Gambia is a quasi-democracy in which the same party, Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), has won all elections since 1996
  • Since 2001, opposition parties have been allowed but are widely considered to have no real chance of gaining power
  • The Gambia was led from 1970 until 1994 by President Sir Dawda Jawara, leader of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), who was re-elected five times
  • In 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) deposed the Jawara government and banned opposition political activity. Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state
  • Jammeh founded the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) and in presidential elections in September 1996 won 56% of the vote
  • President Jammeh was re-elected in 2001, 2006, and 2011.

The Gambia became an English colony in 1888. From the beginning of colonial rule, the British administration gave more importance to the area around the capital Banjul (then Bathurst), known as the “Colony”, than to the interior, referred to as the “Protectorate”. On independence on 18 February 1965, the Colony and Protectorate were considered united and The Gambia – with a capital “T” – became the official name of the new independent nation. On 24 April 1970, The Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth.

In 1994, Yahya Jammeh, a young army officer, took power after a bloodless coup d’état. The coup marked the demise of the longest continuous multi-party democracy in Africa; and ended the tenure of the continent’s longest-serving national leader, President Sir Dawda Jawara, who had ruled since 1970 at the head of The People’s Progressive Party (PPP). Jawara had won the 1992 presidential election with 56% of the vote. Following the coup, he was exiled until 2002.

The 1970 constitution, which divided the government into independent executive, legislative and judicial branches, was suspended after the coup. The Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) established the Constitution Review Commission (CRC), which drafted a new constitution for The Gambia that was approved by referendum in August 1996. In 1997 the Constitution of the Second Republic came into effect and elections were held for a National Assembly. Jammeh’s party, Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), won 33 of the 45 assembly seats.

The 1994 coup was not The Gambia’s first. In 1981 there had been a bloodily aborted attempt to put an end to the government’s corruption. It was led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, a self-styled Marxist. Since The Gambia had no army, President Jawara appealed to Senegal for help to defeat the rebel force. The close association between The Gambia and Senegal in putting down the coup led to a formal confederation the following year, which came to an end in 1989.

There have been more coup attempts. Amid tensions preceding the 2006 presidential elections, an alleged plan to unseat Jammeh was uncovered, although some believe this was fabricated by the president. For their roles in an alleged coup plot in 2009, eight Gambians were tried for treason and sentenced to death. In December 2014, a failed coup attempt by American-Gambian citizens was reported.

Jammeh’s seizure of power in 1994 prompted Europe and the US to suspend their financial support to The Gambia. Jammeh established relations with Islamic powers including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Libya. Until early 2000, the late Libyan president Muammar al-Qaddafi was President Jammeh’s closest ally in the Arab world. Since his inauguration as president in 1996, Jammeh’s public speeches have been punctuated by Quranic verses and Arabic expressions. To advance his political agenda, he discredited – on national television – the traditional Muslim leaders who had been loyal to the Jawara regime and its secular approach to governance. Instead, he appointed Abdoulie Fatty, a Muslim scholar who had graduated in Saudi Arabia, as his personal adviser and asked him to lead the Friday sermons at the State House Mosque.

In his first presidential election, in 1996, Jammeh won with 56% of the vote. Isatou Njie-Saidy has been vice president, as well as Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs, since 1997. To the chagrin of the political opposition who claimed that the 1996 elections were fraudulent, President Jammeh was re-elected in 2001, 2006, and 2011.

Politicians from deposed President Jawara’s PPP were banned from participating in politics until July 2001. Four registered opposition parties participated in the 18 October 2001 presidential elections, which President Jammeh won with almost 53% of the vote. In legislative elections held in January 2002, the APRC maintained its commanding majority in the National Assembly. The main opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP), boycotted the legislative elections.

Jammeh won the 2006 election with 67% of the vote after the opposition coalition, the National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD), splintered earlier in the year. The NADD comprised five opposition parties, virtually the entire political opposition in The Gambia: National Democratic Action Movement (NDAM), National Reconciliation Party (NRP), People’s Democratic Organisation for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), People’s Progressive Party (PPP), and United Democratic Party (UDP).

In November 2011, elections were held under conditions that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) characterised as “not conducive for the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls”. Having won a fourth term in office with 71% of the vote, President Jammeh is alleged to have said: “Do I look like a loser? There is no way I can lose unless you tell me that all Gambian people are mad”.

In October 2013 President Jammeh pulled The Gambia out of the Commonwealth, saying it was a “neo-colonial institution”. The following year, the EU suspended some €13m of development aid because of alleged human rights abuses by Jammeh’s government. Addressing supporters in May 2008, President Jammeh said that The Gambia was a country of believers where a “sinful and immoral act as homosexuality” would not be tolerated. He warned all homosexuals in the country to leave, noting that legislation on homosexuality “stricter than that in Iran” would be introduced soon. Over the last two decades, Jammeh has tightened his hold on power with the help of the National Intelligence Agency, which is charged with protecting state security by conducting intelligence and covert investigations.

On 11 December 2015, President Jammeh declared The Gambia an Islamic Republic. He issued the proclamation on the basis that more than 90% of Gambians are Muslim and to distance the country from its “colonial legacy”. The Gambia follows Mauritania as Africa’s second Islamic Republic, although the country’s secular constitution, ratified in 1996, remains unaltered. The Gambia Supreme Islamic Council – an organisation made up of Islamic scholars that was founded in 1992 – has been dispatched to tour The Gambia to shore up support for the Islamic Republic. On 4 January 2016, an executive order banning all female civil servants from leaving their hair uncovered during working hours was leaked to the press. The order sparked resistance from opposition leaders, activists, and pro-democracy groups, and was lifted ten days later.

On 1 December 2016, presidential elections took place in The Gambia. With no constitutional limit on the number of terms the president can serve, it was expected that Jammeh, whose official title is “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh Babili Mansa”, would win another victory. To widespread surprise, Gambia’s electoral commission announced that Adama Barrow – who had been chosen to lead the opposition coalition – had won. During a telephone conversation that was broadcast live on state television, Jammeh conceded defeat and said that he would work with the new president-elect in the run-up to Barrow’s inauguration on 18 January 2017.

As unexpected as his defeat, on 9 December Jammeh annulled the outcome of the elections saying that there had been “irregularities”. The latest official figures gave Barrow a narrower win than initially announced: 43.29% to 39.64%, or just under 20,000 votes. Jammeh demanded new elections. It was a move reportedly driven by fear that the incoming coalition government might seek to put him, and senior members of the military, on trial for past human rights abuses.

On 13 December, an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delegation, headed by Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and comprising presidents John Mahama, Muhammadu Buhari and Ernest Bai Koroma went to The Gambia to mediate with the concerned parties. So far a resolution has still to be reached.

Dr Marloes Janson is Reader in West African Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London