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The Gambia's anticorruption commission began hearings in 2004 as part of President Yahya Jammeh's "Operation No Compromise."
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 into a nominally civilian administration.
Jammeh secured a victory in the October 2001 presidential poll, defeating 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. While the Independent Electoral Commission was under some pressure by the ruling party, it generally operated freely. However, there were lingering concerns about President Yahya 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 had issued them voter cards.
The ruling APRC won all but three seats in the January 2002 National Assembly elections. The elections showed signs of improvement over the previous, highly flawed, legislative vote in 1997, although there were some administrative problems with voter registration and the major opposition coalition boycotted the polls.
An anticorruption commission, which is chaired by a Nigerian judge, is probing the acquisition of assets by active and retired ministers and senior military officials during Jammeh's decade in power. No elected lawmaker will have to appear, and neither will the president. Jammeh launched the anticorruption campaign in 2003 as part of an effort to win foreign investment. The National Assembly supported his "Operation No Compromise" by passing legislation against corruption and money laundering. A number of officials faced charges of financial impropriety, including some officials from Jammeh's inner circle. Among them was the majority leader of the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) in the National Assembly. In July 2004, the anticorruption commission began hearings as part of "Operation No Compromise."
In December 2003, opposition leader Lamine Waa Juwara of the national Democratic Action Movement was rearrested after a judge revoked his bail order. He has been awaiting trial on sedition charges. He was charged after calling for mass protests against the government in September 2003 and has been in and out of jail several times since Jammeh came to power.
The Gambia is a poor, tiny country, with few natural resources, that depends on exports of peanuts and other commodities. However, oil has been discovered offshore.
The Gambia's citizens were granted their right to choose or change their government for the first time in several years in the 2001 presidential election, despite sporadic violence preceding the polls.
An anticorruption campaign was launched in 2003, and a number of officials have faced corruption charges. Gambia was ranked 90 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Press freedom is guaranteed, but harassment and self-censorship sometimes inhibit free expression by the country's independent print media. The National Assembly passed the National Media Commission Bill in 2002, which provided for the creation of a commission that has the power to decide who is and is not a journalist and to deny the right to confidentiality of sources. The commission can issue arrest warrants for journalists and can jail journalists for contempt for up to six months. Offenses can include the publication or broadcast of "language, caricature, cartoon, or depiction, which is derogatory, contemptuous, or insulting against any person or authority," according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Fearing that the commission would not be impartial, private media in May 2004 declared a temporary news blackout in protest. The Gambia Press Union has taken the commission to court over some of its powers.
Private broadcasters and newspapers in The Gambia struggle to pay high licensing fees. 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 is an important source of independent information for rural Gambians. Authorities shut it down in October 2001, and it remained closed in 2004.
In April, armed men stormed a building that housed the printing press of the private biweekly newspaper, The Independent. The men fired shots into the building before dousing equipment with gasoline and setting it ablaze. Three employees were injured in the fire. In August, there was an arson attack on the home of BBC correspondent Ebrima Sillah, who was able to escape without injury. Several days before the attack, Demba Jawo, president of the Gambia Press Union, received an anonymous threatening letter at his home. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed, and the government respects this right. Academic freedom is guaranteed and respected.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed, but this right is not always respected. Security forces often crack down violently on demonstrators. Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely, although human rights workers, opposition members, and journalists occasionally face harassment. 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.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. While lower courts are sometimes subject to executive influence, the judiciary 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" 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 of prisoners in jails has been reported, although conditions in some of the country's prisons have improved.
Impunity for the country's security forces is a problem. Parliament passed a law in 2001 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. Military decrees still existed that give authorities broad power to detain individuals indefinitely without charge "in the interest of national security."
Ethnic groups in Gambia live harmoniously. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, language, ethnicity, gender and other factors and the government generally enforced these provisions.
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 are still far fewer for women than for men, especially in rural areas. However, the government has waived school fees for girls, and women occupy senior government posts, including those of the vice president and minister of education. Sharia provisions regarding family law and inheritance restrict women's rights. Female genital mutilation is not banned and is widely practiced, but women's groups are working to eliminate the practice, and the government supports these efforts.