The Gambia was ruled for over two decades by former president Yahya Jammeh, who mounted a bloodless coup in 1994 and consistently violated political rights and civil liberties. The 2016 election resulted in a surprise victory for opposition candidate Adama Barrow. Fundamental freedoms including the rights of assembly, association, and speech improved thereafter, but the rule of law is unconsolidated, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people face severe discrimination, and violence against women remains a serious problem.
Key Developments in 2018:
- Local government elections were held in April and May without major incident.
- In May, the Supreme Court upheld sections of the Criminal Code prohibiting “false publication and broadcasting.” In the same ruling, however, the court struck down criminal defamation and libel laws.
- In June, three civilians in Faraba Banta were killed when police fired live ammunition into an environmental protest. Five police officers were charged with murder for their role in the deaths.
- In October, the government established the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission to investigate human rights abuses committed during the Jammeh era.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 20 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 7 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 2 / 4
The president is directly elected to five-year terms, and there are no term limits. International observers were not allowed into The Gambia ahead of the December 2016 presidential election, and internet and international telephone services were cut on election day. Despite these obstacles, the Independent Electoral Commission was able to conduct an impartial vote count, and declared that Barrow, the candidate of the United Democratic Party (UDP), had won. Incumbent president Jammeh initially conceded defeat, but then reversed his position, and had not stepped down by the time Barrow was inaugurated in Senegal in January 2017. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) then sent in troops under a previously approved authorization to intervene militarily if a peaceful transfer of power did not begin by the last day of Jammeh’s mandate. Within days of the deployment, Jammeh conceded defeat and left the country, allowing Barrow to take office.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
Of the 58 members of the unicameral National Assembly, 53 are elected by popular vote, with the remainder appointed by the president; members serve five-year terms. The April 2017 parliamentary elections were transparent, peaceful, and neutrally managed, and were commended by ECOWAS, the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), and the United Nations. Weaknesses included low turnout, incomplete updating of the voter registry, and weak organization of vote collation processes. Nevertheless, most polling stations operated on time and vote counting was transparent.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4
The Independent Electoral Commission adequately managed the 2017 National Assembly elections, as well as local elections held in April and May 2018, but nevertheless faces serious challenges. Election observers have called for improvements to voter registration processes, improved polling station conditions, and more standardized counting and collation processes, as well as the redrawing of election district boundaries.
In 2017, the National Assembly amended the Elections Act to dramatically reduce deposits required to run for office at various levels.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 9 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4
The Gambia currently has 10 political parties, which generally have not faced undue obstacles to form and operate in recent years. To register a new party, organizers must pay a 1 million dalasi ($21,000) registration fee and garner the signatures of 10,000 registered voters, with at least 1,000 from each of the country’s seven regions. Parties centered on a particular religion, ethnicity, or region are banned. Prior to the 2016 presidential election, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) had long dominated politics, and the rise and fall of competing political parties has yet to be institutionalized.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
The UDP won 31 seats in the 2017 National Assembly elections, taking an absolute majority and displacing Jammeh’s APRC, which took 5 seats, down from the 48 it held previously. A number of other opposition groups gained representation in the elections. Previously, under Jammeh, the APRC had dominated the legislature over a period of two decades. Politicized security forces had suppressed the opposition during the 2016 election period.
UDP and APRC supporters clashed several times in 2018, particularly surrrounding the April and May local elections. In January, for example, UDP supporters allegedly attacked APRC members on a number of stops during a campaign tour.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4
While people’s political choices are more free from the undue dominance of unelected groups since the end of Jammeh’s 22-year rule, military forces and foreign powers remain influential in Gambian politics. The ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) was scheduled to end in May 2018, but its mandate was extended by one year at the request of the Barrow government to further facilitate security sector reform, and due to ongoing concerns that pro-Jammeh loyalists in the military could cause political instability.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4
While political rights and electoral opportunities have recently improved, women remain underrepresented in politics. The National Assembly elected in 2017 includes the first-ever woman speaker and a disabled person; both are presidential appointees. The Jola-dominated APRC no longer monopolizes political space.
Since ethnic tensions escalated toward the end of the Jammeh regime, both the APRC and UDP have become more ethnically polarized, with Jola people largely gravitating toward the APRC and Mandinkas supporting the UDP.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 4 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4
Nonstate actors, armed forces, and foreign governments do not appear to enjoy preponderant influence over the Barrow regime. However, despite these improvements, representative rule has yet to be consolidated.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
The Barrow government has undertaken limited initiatives to reduce corruption, which remains a serious problem. Allegations of corruption by officials at all levels of government are frequently lodged. A Commission of Inquiry is investigating former president Jammeh’s use of state funds for private gain, and froze his assets. However, challenges remain. Gambians continue to call for laws establishing an anticorruption commission and requiring public asset declarations by government officials. In his State of the Nation speech in September 2018, Barrow stated that legislation to create the commission would soon be submitted to the cabinet for approval. There is currently no law to protect whistleblowers.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Government operations are generally opaque, but limited steps were taken toward improving transparency in 2018. Government officials are now required to make asset declarations to the ombudsman, but the declarations are not open to public and media scrutiny; Barrow has defended this withholding of information, citing privacy concerns. There are widespread allegations of corruption in public procurement processes.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 25 / 60 (+4)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 8 / 16 (+1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
Journalists have cited improvements in the media environment under Barrow’s administration. These include decreased self-censorship, which journalists attribute to a lifting of the climate of fear most had operated in under Jammeh’s severely restrictive administration, when coverage of sensitive topics could result in arrest or abduction. In the newly opened environment, more people are entering the profession, and exiled journalists have returned to the country.
Nevertheless, restrictive media laws remain on the books, and some have been upheld by courts. In May 2018, the Supreme Court upheld sections of the Criminal Code prohibiting “false publication and broadcasting,” in a decision condemned by foreign and domestic media. In the same ruling, however, the court struck down criminal defamation and libel laws.
Despite the progress in recent years, journalists still risk arrest and assault by the police. In June, for example, security forces arrested radio station manager Pa Modou Bojang, who was covering a police crackdown on a protest in the village of Faraba Banta, and allegedly beat him in custody.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4
The Barrow government has maintained that the Gambia is a secular society in which all faiths can practice freely. In practice, non-Sunni Islamic groups have experienced discrimination. Ahmadiyya Muslims have been publicly denounced as non-Muslims by the quasi-governmental Supreme Islamic Council, and a 2015 fatwa by the council denied Ahmadiyya burial rights in Muslim ceremonies.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2 / 4 (+1)
Academic freedom was severely limited at the University of The Gambia under Jammeh. However, since Barrow took office, the environment for the free exchange of ideas among students and professors has improved, despite lingering challenges. In January 2018, a lecturer at the University of The Gambia was arrested and briefly detained by the police over a newspaper interview in which he criticized the Barrow government’s security policies. A student protest against the lecturer’s arrest was held peacefully, one of several student demonstrations that were carried out without incident during the year.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the climate for both students and professors to express themselves freely has improved.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2 / 4
Following years of repressive rule under Jammeh, freedom for ordinary people to express views—particularly those of a political nature—without fear of retaliation has increased since Barrow’s administration took power. The Supreme Court ruled in May 2018 that sedition laws in the Criminal Code were constitutional, which some analysts argued could be used to criminalize criticism of the government on social media.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 6 / 12 (+1)
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4 (+1)
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, and while limitations to this right remain under the Barrow administration, the environment improved further in 2018, with a number of demonstrations and political rallies in the run-up to the elections held without incident.
Despite these improvements, security forces violently dispersed some protests during the year. In June 2018, for example, three civilians in Faraba Banta were killed when police fired live ammunition into an environmental protest. The Barrow administration quickly launched an inquiry into the violence and accepted the resignation of the police inspector general, who drew heavy criticism for the police’s conduct, days after the incident. Five police officers were charged with murder for their role in the deaths at the end of June. In November, the inquiry commission’s report was published, which ordered the prosecution of the five officers. Some analysts asserted that Barrow’s response signaled a commitment to accountability for police violence against demonstrators.
The Public Order Act, which was used by Jammeh to restrict protests, was upheld by the Supreme Court in late 2017. Under the act, permits from the police inspector general are required for public assemblies. Opposition leader Mama Kandeh was denied a permit in 2017, which led to a public outcry.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because the space for peaceful assembly has increased under the Barrow administration, and the government has taken measures to promote accountability for violence against protesters.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
There are a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the Gambia focused on human rights and governance issues. Under Jammeh, NGO workers faced a serious risk of detention and other reprisals, but there were few reports of such suppression in 2018.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
Workers—except for civil servants, household workers, and security forces—may form unions, strike, and bargain for wages, but the labor minister has the discretion to exclude other categories of workers. Domestic and international trade union activity took place peacefully during the year with the support of the government.
F. RULE OF LAW: 5 / 16 (+2)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4
The judiciary is hampered by corruption and inefficiency. The executive dominates judicial appointment processes. The Barrow administration has taken steps to appoint more Gambian citizens in the judiciary, as Jammeh had frequently appointed foreign judges whose terms he could easily cancel if they issued rulings he opposed. However, the judiciary remains reliant on foreign judges.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4 (+1)
Constitutional guarantees of due process remain poorly upheld, but the situation has improved significantly under President Barrow. Political dissidents face less risk of arrest and prosecution. There were several high-profile reports of arbitrary detention in 2018, but most of those detained were released after a short time with no explanation. The government has taken steps to arrest and prosecute security officers responsible for human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. The trial of seven former officers in the now defunct National Intelligence Agency (NIA), who are accused of murder in the 2016 death of rights activist Ebrima Solo Sandeng, was ongoing at year’s end. One of the accused, the former deputy director of the NIA, Louis Gomez, died in prison in October 2018.
Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because political dissidents faced less risk of arbitrary arrest and prosecution, and the government has taken steps to hold perpetrators of abuses during the Jammeh regime accountable.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4 (+1)
The use of illegitimate physical force by security agents has been less frequent under the Barrow administration. In October 2018, the government established the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission to investigate human rights abuses committed during the Jammeh era. The commission will recommend individuals for prosecution and identify victims who will be eligible for financial compensation.
However, serious challenges persist. There are few safeguards to prevent people accused of committing human rights abuses from holding positions of authority within the criminal justice and prison systems. Prison conditions are harsh and unsanitary, and there have been reports of torture in prisons.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 due to a reduction in abuses by security forces, and government efforts to pursue justice for human rights violations committed during the Jammeh era.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
A number of groups encounter serious difficulties in exercising their human rights. Legal protections for disabled people require strengthening and enforcement. LGBT people face severe societal discrimination, and same-sex relations remain criminalized. In 2017, Vice President Ousainou Darboe called for decriminalization, but in April 2018 Barrow dismissed homosexuality as a “nonissue” in The Gambia. The constitution prohibits discrimination, but this “does not apply in respect to adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, and devolution of property upon death.”
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 6 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
Freedom of movement is hampered by poor roads and transportation infrastructure. Security checkpoints are common, particularly at night.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Gambian law provides formal protection of property rights, although Sharia (Islamic law) provisions on family law and inheritance can facilitate discrimination against women. Corruption hampers legitimate business activity.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Rape and domestic violence are illegal, but common. There are no laws prohibiting polygamy, or levirate marriage (in which a widow is married off to the younger brother of her spouse). Female genital mutilation (FGM) was outlawed in 2015, but is still practiced by some. Activists have called on Barrow to clearly indicate that the law prohibiting it will remain on the books. There is some evidence that rates of FGM and child marriage have increased since the end of the Jammeh regime. In November 2018, the Ministry of Justice established a specialized unit to address sexual and gender-based violence.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Women enjoy less access to higher education, justice, and employment than men. Although child labor and forced labor are illegal, some women and children are subject to sex trafficking, domestic servitude, and forced begging. The government has recently made an increased effort to address human trafficking, including by training security officials and border guards to identify victims, and by providing better services to those identified. However, the impact of these changes has been modest.