Gambia, The | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Gambia, The

Gambia, The

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores

Status

Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4.0

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

4
Ratings Change: 


The Gambia's political rights and civil liberties ratings both improved from 5 to 4 due to legislative elections that were more free and fair than previous polls, gradual improvements in the state of civil liberties, and changes in the survey methodology.

Overview: 


The Gambia continued its process of simultaneously moving forward and stepping back in 2002. It held national assembly elections in January that showed signs of improvement over the previous legislative vote, but later the assembly passed a restrictive media bill. President Yahya Jammeh had not signed it into law by year's end. Low turnout marked the January polls, which were boycotted by prominent opposition parties, including the United Democratic Party (UDP). The ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) dominated the elections, following Jammeh's presidential victory in October 2001, although two opposition parties enjoyed minor gains. Neighboring Guinea-Bissau accused The Gambia of complicity in an alleged coup plot in 2002, which The Gambia denied, and the United Nations sent an envoy to help reduce tension between the two countries.

After gaining 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. A new constitution, adopted by a closely controlled 1996 referendum, allowed Jammeh to transform his military dictatorship to a nominally civilian administration.

The Gambia is a poor, tiny country with few natural resources that depends on exports of peanuts and other commodities.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


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. Jammeh repealed the repressive Decree 89, which had prohibited any former ministers from participating in political activity or taking another governmental post until 2024. The opposition was given free airtime on state-controlled radio and television. The Independent Electoral Commission was under some pressure by the ruling party but generally operated freely. Nevertheless, President Yahya Jammeh, of the APRC, defeated opposition leader Ousainou Darboe. Jammeh won 53 percent of the vote compared with 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 EU and the Commonwealth declared the elections generally free and fair, there were lingering concerns about Jammeh's commitment to democracy when several opposition supporters, human rights workers, and journalists were detained after the polls. Allegations surfaced after the vote that Jammeh's party had brought in members of his ethnic group living in neighboring Senegal and issued them voter cards.

Some international observers described the January 2002 national assembly elections as "generally free and fair," in contrast to the highly flawed 1997 poll. However, the election was boycotted by the main opposition parties, including the UDP, and there were some administrative problems with voter registration. Of the 48 seats in the legislature chosen by popular vote, the ruling APRC won the most seats, 45, and two opposition parties captured a total of 3 seats.

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 government 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" in order 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. However, conditions in some of the country's prisons have improved.

Civil liberties suffered in 2001 when authorities increased immunity from prosecution 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 had cracked down on demonstrators, killing 16 people. Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely in The Gambia, but human rights workers, opposition members, and journalists occasionally face harassment.

Press freedom is guaranteed, but harassment and self-censorship sometimes inhibit free expression of the country's vibrant, independent print media. International press freedom organizations protested the passing in 2002 of a restrictive media bill by the National Assembly. The National Media Commission Bill, which Jammeh had not yet signed into law at the end of 2002, would give government authorities the power to decide who is and is not a journalist, and to deny the right to confidentiality of sources.

Private broadcasters and newspapers in The Gambia struggle with exorbitant licensing fees they are required to pay. 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 broadcasts in a number of indigenous languages, and it is an important source of independent information for rural Gambians. Authorities have occasionally shut it down.

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. There are two main labor unions, and about 10 percent of the workforce is unionized.