Freedom in the World
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The ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party swept legislative elections in January 2007, overcoming weak and fragmented opposition parties. A UN envoy was expelled in February after she criticized President Yahya Jammeh’s claim that he could “cure” AIDS patients with traditional medicine. Separately, two Amnesty International researchers and a local journalist were detained for a week in October while investigating widespread human rights abuses.
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.
Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh deposed Jawara in a military coup in 1994. The junior officers who led the coup denounced the ousted government’s alleged corruption, promising transparency, accountability, and early elections. Instead, they quickly issued draconian decrees curtailing civil and political rights. 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 2001 presidential poll, defeating opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, a human rights lawyer who headed a three-party opposition coalition, by 53 percent of the vote to 33 percent. Three other candidates won a combined total of 14 percent. In the January 2002 National Assembly elections, the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) won all but three seats. The polls showed signs of improvement over the previous, highly flawed legislative vote in 1997, but were marred by an opposition boycott.
In March 2006, officials announced that they had foiled an attempted coup. More than 20 suspects were arrested during the year, including senior intelligence and defense personnel. Amnesty International expressed concern that detainees could be subject to torture after five suspects, including former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) director Daba Marena, reportedly disappeared while in custody. Ten military officers were convicted of involvement in the coup and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in April 2007. The coup attempt also sparked a wave of repression against The Gambia’s tiny private press, as the NIA arrested several prominent journalists and shut down a leading private newspaper, the Independent.
Jammeh won a new five-year mandate in a presidential election held in September 2006, taking 67.3 percent of the vote. Darboe, running as a candidate for the United Democratic Party (UDP), received 26.6 percent, while another opposition leader, Halifa Sallah, captured the remaining share. The conduct of the polls was undermined by government repression of the media and opposition in the run-up to the vote. Darboe rejected the results as a “sham.”
The APRC won 42 out of 48 seats in legislative elections held on January 25, 2007, and gained another 5 that are filled by presidential appointees. The UDP won four seats, and the smaller opposition National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD) party took one; the remaining elected seat was captured by an independent candidate. Voter turnout was just under 42 percent. Opposition parties accepted the results.
In early 2007, President Jammeh announced that he would personally cure HIV-positive Gambians using a mixture of traditional herbs, sparking international condemnation. A UN envoy was expelled in February after expressing concern over patients abandoning antiretroviral drugs in favor of this treatment.
In October 2007, two Amnesty International researchers were detained for a week, along with a Gambian journalist who was working with them, while investigating human rights abuses including extrajudicial detentions. Two other Gambian journalists faced trial on criminal charges in 2007; one of them, Fatou Jaw Manneh, is based in the United States but was kept in Banjul on “sedition” charges for most of the year. The International Federation of Journalists reported that three local journalists fled the country in 2007 out of fear for their safety, while another, Chief Ebrima Manneh, has been missing since 2006.
The Gambia is a small, poor country with few natural resources, and its economy is dependent on peanut exports, tourism, and remittances from Gambians living abroad. In June 2006, the U.S. government suspended The Gambia’s eligibility for aid under the Millennium Challenge Corporation, citing concerns over political freedom and human rights as well as “diminishing” anticorruption efforts. A September 2007 International Monetary Fund report was relatively optimistic, however, projecting 7 percent economic growth for the year.
The Gambia is not an electoral democracy. While the 2006 presidential poll was deemed free and fair by regional observers, serious government repression of the media and the opposition in the run-up to the vote made a level playing field for the three candidates impossible. The president is both chief of state and head of government. He is elected by popular vote for five-year terms; the number of terms is not restricted. Of the 53 members of the unicameral National Assembly, 48 are elected by popular vote and 5 are appointed by the president; members serve for five years.
Major political parties include the ruling APRC; the UDP, led by Ousainou Darboe; the National Reconciliation Party (NRP); and the NADD, a coalition of several smaller opposition groups including the People’s Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS). In November 2005, three opposition leaders—Hamat Bah, Omar Jallow, and Halifa Sallah—were detained for several weeks after they formed a coalition with the UDP in order to unseat President Yahya Jammeh in the 2006 presidential election. The coalition splintered in early 2006.
Official corruption remains a serious problem in The Gambia. The few high-level corruption-related prosecutions that have taken place, including the conviction in 2004 of former National Assembly majority leader Baba Jobe, have been dogged by procedural irregularities and the appearance of political motivations. The Gambia ranked 143 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The private press in The Gambia has been all but extinguished by frequent arrests, threats, and legal harassment. Since 2000, several prominent critical media outlets have been targeted by arson attacks, none of which have been investigated and prosecuted by authorities. State-run Radio Gambia broadcasts only tightly controlled news programming, which is also relayed by private radio stations. The country has a single, government-run television station. The December 2004 assassination of prominent Gambian journalist and press freedom activist Deyda Hydara has remained unsolved; Hydara was killed only days after the legislature passed new amendments strengthening the criminal penalties for press offenses and multiplying the fees for media licenses. In 2006, authorities shuttered the Independent, a critical private newspaper. The New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists in 2007 listed The Gambia as one of the world’s 10 worst “backsliders” on press freedom.
While the state generally does not restrict internet usage, several alleged local contributors to a U.S.-based antigovernment website were detained in 2006 by the NIA, after their names were leaked to Gambian authorities.
Freedom of religion is legally guaranteed and upheld by the government. Academic freedom is also respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are provided by law but not always observed in practice. Security forces often crack down violently on demonstrators. In the lead-up to an African Union summit held in Banjul in July 2006, the government barred a coalition of regional civil society organizations from holding a forum on free expression. Gambians, except for civil service employees and members of the security forces, have the right to form unions, strike, and bargain for wages.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. Lower courts are hampered by corruption and are sometimes subject to executive influence, but the judiciary has demonstrated its independence on several occasions, at times in significant cases. A number of judges have been brought to The Gambia from other African countries, and they tend to operate fairly and vigorously. The judicial system recognizes customary law and Sharia (Islamic law), primarily with regards to personal and family law.
Impunity for the country’s security forces is a problem. A 1995 decree, still in effect, allows the NIA to “search, arrest, or detain any person, or seize, impound, or search any vessel, equipment, plant, or property without a warrant” in the name of “state security.” In such cases, the right to seek a writ of habeas corpus is suspended. The National Assembly passed a law in 2001 giving amnesty “for any fact, matter or omission to act, or things done or purported to have been done during any unlawful assembly, public disturbance, riotous situation or period of public emergency.” Torture of prisoners, including political prisoners, has been reported. Diplomatic relations with Ghana have been strained over The Gambia’s failure to investigate the deaths in 2005 of 50 African migrants, including Ghanaians, reportedly while in Gambian custody.
The Gambia’s various ethnic groups coexist in relative harmony, though critics have accused Jammeh of privileging members of the Jola ethnic group within the military and other positions of power. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, language, ethnicity, gender, and other factors, and the government generally enforces these provisions, according to the U.S. State Department.
Religious and traditional obstacles to the advancement of women are being addressed by both the government and women’s organizations. Women have fewer opportunities for higher education and wage employment than men, especially in rural areas. However, the government has waived school fees for girls, and women occupy senior government posts. 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 it.