Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political rights in The Gambia improved from 7 to 5 because the government lifted a controversial decree barring some of its opponents from political activity, and held elections that were considerably more fair than previous polls.
President Yahya Jammeh soundly defeated opposition leader Ousainou Darboe in presidential elections in October 2001. Jammeh, of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, won 53 percent of the vote compared to 33 percent for Darboe, a human rights lawyer who headed a three-party opposition coalition. Three other candidates won a combined total of 14 percent. Although observers from the European Union and the Commonwealth declared the elections generally free and fair, there were lingering concerns about Jammeh’s commitment to democracy when more than a dozen opposition supporters, journalists, and a human rights worker were detained after the polls. Darboe initially commended the Independent Electoral Commission for its work, but later raised questions when allegations surfaced that Jammeh’s party had brought in members of his ethnic group living in neighboring Senegal and issued them voter cards.
After receiving independence from Britain in 1965, The Gambia functioned as an electoral democracy under President Sir Dawda Jawara and his People’s Progressive Party for almost 30 years. A 1981 coup by leftist soldiers was reversed by intervention from Senegal, which borders The Gambia on three sides. The two countries formed the Confederation of Senegambia a year later, but it was dissolved in 1989. Senegal declined to rescue the Jawara government again when Jammeh struck in 1994. The leaders of the 1994 coup denounced the ousted government’s alleged corruption, promising transparency, accountability, and early elections. Instead, they quickly imposed draconian decrees curtailing civil and political rights and the free media.
Jammeh in July 2001 repealed the repressive Decree 89, which had prohibited any former ministers from participating in political activity or taking up a government post until 2024. Civil liberties suffered in 2001 when authorities broadened impunity for the country’s security forces. Parliament passed a law giving amnesty “for any fact, matter or omission of act, or things done or purported to have been done during any unlawful assembly, public disturbance, riotous situation or period of public emergency.” The legislation was backdated to April 2000 when security forces cracked down on demonstrators, killing 16 people, including six children.
The Gambia is a poor, tiny country with few natural resources that depends on exports of peanuts and other commodities.
The Gambia’s citizens were granted their right to choose or change their government for the first time in several years in 2001, despite sporadic violence preceding the polls. The opposition was given free air time on state-controlled radio and television. The Independent Electoral Commission was under some pressure by the ruling party but generally operated freely. The country’s 1996 presidential and 1997 legislative elections were neither free nor fair. A new constitution, adopted by a closely controlled 1996 referendum, allowed Jammeh to transform his military dictatorship to a nominally civilian administration. Legislative elections are scheduled for January 2002.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. While lower courts are sometimes subject to executive influence, the judiciary in general has demonstrated its independence on several occasions, at times in significant cases. There are a number of judges from Nigeria, Ghana, and other African countries, who tend to operate fairly and vigorously. Local chiefs preside over courts at the village level. The judicial system recognizes customary law, or Sharia (Islamic law), primarily in marriage matters.
Although the Jammeh regime has made some steps towards political openness, it still has extensive repressive powers. A 1995 decree allows the National Intelligence Agency to cite “state security” to “search, arrest, or detain any person, or seize, impound, or search any vessel, equipment, plant, or property without a warrant.” In such cases, the right to seek a writ of habeas corpus is suspended. Torture in jails and barracks has been reported. The International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups have been allowed to visit prisons, where life-threatening conditions prevail.
Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely, but a prominent human rights activist was detained after the October presidential election. The local representative of the London-based rights group Amnesty International, Mohammed Lamin Sillah, was detained for questioning and held incommunicado for four days. Amnesty said at least 13 others were also detained for “unclear reasons” following the elections.
The government relaxed limits on freedom of assembly during the campaign period leading up to the elections in 2001. Press freedom is guaranteed but harassment and self-censorship sometimes inhibit free expression of the country’s vibrant, independent print media. Private broadcasters and newspapers struggle with exorbitant licensing fees they are required to pay. A reporter with the Independent newspaper was briefly detained in November, reportedly for an article questioning the validity of Jammeh’s election victory.
State-run Radio Gambia broadcasts only tightly controlled news that is also relayed by private radio stations. A single government-run television station operates. Citizen FM, which the government closed in February 1998, began broadcasting again in late 2000 following a court judgment in its favor. Citizen FM broadcasts in a number of indigenous languages and is an important source of independent information for rural Gambians. It was shut down again after the October election when authorities accused its owner of tax evasion, which he denied.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed, and the government respects this right. Religious and traditional obstacles to the advancement of women are being addressed by both the government and women’s organizations. Higher education and wage employment opportunities for women are still far fewer than those for men, especially in rural areas. Sharia provisions regarding family law and inheritance restrict women’s rights. Female genital mutilation is widely practiced, but women’s groups are working to eliminate the practice.
Gambians, except for civil service employees and members of the security forces, have the right to form unions, strike, and bargain for wages under the 1990 Labor Code. There are two main labor unions and about ten percent of the workforce is unionized.