Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The Gambia received a downward trend arrow due to increased corruption, the government’s harsh responses to criticism, and President Yahya Jammeh’s threats against homosexuals.
The government’s restriction of freedom of expression continued in 2008 with numerous cases of harassment and the arrests of several journalists. The whereabouts of journalist Chief Ebrima Manneh, detained since July 2006, remain unknown. In May, President Yahya Jammeh ordered all homosexuals to leave the country and threatened to behead those who remained. Also during the year, the country lost ground on international governance indicators amid increasing official corruption.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1965, The Gambia functioned for almost 30 years as an electoral democracy under President Dawda Jawara and his People’s Progressive Party. 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 in a closely controlled 1996 referendum, allowed Jammeh to transform his military dictatorship into a nominally civilian administration.
In the 2001 presidential poll, Jammeh defeated Ousainou Darboe, a human rights lawyer who headed a three-party opposition coalition, 53 percent to 33 percent. The ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) won all but three seats in the 2002 National Assembly elections, thanks to a widespread boycott by opposition parties.
In March 2006, officials announced that they had foiled an attempted coup, leading to the arrest of dozens of people, including senior intelligence and defense personnel. The disappearance of five of the detainees raised concerns about torture. The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) also arrested several prominent journalists and shut down a leading private newspaper, the Independent, during the year. Ten military officers were convicted of involvement in the coup attempt and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in April 2007.
Jammeh won a new five-year term in the September 2006 presidential election, taking 67.3 percent of the vote. Darboe, running as the candidate of the United Democratic Party (UDP), received 26.6 percent, while another opposition leader, Halifa Sallah, captured the remaining share. The preelection period was marred by government repression of the media and the opposition, and Darboe rejected the results as a “sham.” In January 2007 legislative elections, the APRC won 42 out of 48 contested seats and gained another five that are filled by presidential appointees. A Commonwealth observer group stated that the results reflected the wishes of the electorate, but called for “a more level playing field and a more restrained utilization of the advantages of incumbency.”
On May 15, 2008, the president ordered all homosexuals to leave the country within 24 hours, threatening decapitation for any who remained and promising new laws on homosexuality that were “stricter than those in Iran.” Meanwhile, Jammeh continued to claim that he could personally cure HIV infection using traditional herbs.
Although The Gambia is a small, poor, and agrarian country, it has experienced modest economic growth due to its tourist industry and the government’s increased emphasis on economic development, leading to a slight increase in its standing on the UN Development Programme’s 2007/2008 Human Development Index.
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 it impossible for the candidates to compete on a level playing field. Commonwealth observers found similar flaws in the 2008 legislative elections.The president, who serves as both chief of state and head of government, is elected by popular vote for unlimited five-year terms. Of the 53 members of the unicameral National Assembly, 48 are elected by popular vote and the remainder 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 National Alliance for Democracy and Development (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 an effort to unseat President Yahya Jammeh in the 2006 presidential election. The 2008 Ibrahim Index of African Governance downgraded The Gambia’s score for political “Participation and Human Rights,” ranking it 35 out 48 African countries in that category.
Official corruption remains a serious problem in The Gambia, and few high-level corruption-related prosecutions have taken place. In June 2006, the U.S. government suspended The Gambia’s eligibility for aid under the Millennium Challenge Corporation, citing concerns about “diminishing” anticorruption efforts, among other problems. The 2008 Ibrahim Index also downgraded The Gambia’s ranking in “Rule of Law, Transparency, and Corruption,” and the country was ranked 158 out of 180 surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government does not respect freedom of the press, and independent journalists are subject to arrests, threats, harassment, and violence. Self-censorship is thought to be common. The 2004 assassination of journalist and press freedom activist Deyda Hydara remains unsolved; he was killed only days after the legislature passed new amendments strengthening the criminal penalties for press offenses and multiplying the fees for media licenses. Another journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh, was arrested in July 2006 for publishing a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report that was critical of Jammeh in the state-controlled Daily Observer newspaper. The Community Court of Justice, an organ of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), ruled in June 2008 that Manneh’s detention was illegal. He has reportedly been seen at a hospital in Banjul, but the government continues to deny knowledge of his whereabouts, and his condition is still unknown. Also in June, Daily Observer managing director Dida Halake was temporarily arrested on various charges, including sedition. In July, and again in August, the managing director of Today, Abdullamid Adiamoh, was temporarily detained and his home searched on charges of sedition. The government runs Radio Gambia as well as the sole television channel, and private radio stations relay Radio Gambia news content. For ten days in early 2008, Radio France Internationale (RFI) was temporarily banned by the government.While the state generally does not restrict internet usage, some websites have been blocked.
Freedom of religion is legally guaranteed and generally upheld by the government. Academic freedom is respected on the surface, but the limitations on freedom of speech for the press are thought to encourage self-censorship among academics.Private discussion is limited by fears of surveillance, searches, and even arrest by the NIA, which are compounded by the perception that this body operates with impunity.
Freedoms of assembly and association are provided by law and generally observed in practice.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 executive influence, but the judiciary tends to operate fairly and vigorously. The Gambia continues to recruit judges and magistrates from other African countries, and is increasingly receiving judicial assistance from the Commonwealth. The judicial system recognizes customary law and Sharia (Islamic law), primarily with regard 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 44 Ghanaians, reportedly while in Gambian custody. 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. Despite laws requiring authorities to obtain warrants prior to making arrests and limiting incarceration to 72 hours without formal charges, the U.S. State Department’s 2008 human rights report noted several cases of detentions surpassing these limits in 2008.
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.
Women have fewer opportunities for higher education and wage employment than men, especially in rural areas. Sharia provisions regarding family law and inheritance restrict women’s rights, and female genital mutilation remains legal and widely practiced. The U.S. State Department kept The Gambia on the Tier 2 Watch List in its 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report, citing the government’s failure to reduce human trafficking for forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation of women and children. However, the government has waived school fees for girls attending primary school, and women occupy some parliamentary seats as well as 20 percent of cabinet-level positions, including the vice presidency.