Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main religions: Muslim 95.7 per cent (mainly Sunni), Christian 4.2 per cent
Main languages: English (official), Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, other indigenous languages
Ethnic groups include Mandinka/Mandé (34 per cent), Fulani/Fula/Peulh (22.4 per cent), Wolof (12.6 per cent), Jola/Karoninka (10.7 per cent), Serahule (6.6 per cent), Serer (3.2 per cent), Manjago (2.1 per cent), Bambara (1 per cent), Creole/Aku Marabout (0.7 per cent), and other smaller communities (CIA World Factbook). Estimates vary, however, with other sources estimating for example that Mandinka comprise a little over 40 per cent of the population.
Updated May 2020
Gambia is currently undergoing a major period of change following the ousting of the country’s longstanding ruler, President Yahya Jammeh, in 2017. Jammeh, an ethnic Jola, came to power in 1994 following a military coup and was subsequently elected to office in 1996 – an outcome confirmed in every subsequent election for the next 20 years. During his time in office state power was highly concentrated in his hands; forces loyal to him were implicated in numerous human rights violations against members of all ethnic groups. One paramilitary group known as ‘the Junglers’ or ‘Jungulars’, reportedly drawn from Jammeh’s Jola ethnic group, was accused of extrajudicial arrests and killings as well as of instances of torture during his decades in power. Information has also emerged of other cases, such as that of a group of some 50 West African migrants, in transit through the country in 2005, who were captured and summarily executed by members of the Gambian armed forces.
In the last years of Jammeh’s rule, as political opposition intensified, his regime was characterized by a growing number of human rights abuses. Following a failed coup attempt in 2014, dozens of people were arrested and tortured, with continued repression in the aftermath and the targeting of many critics of the regime, including United Democratic Party (UDP) activist Solo Sandeng, killed in detention in April 2016 after his arrest for leading a peaceful demonstration. His death, only acknowledged by the authorities months later, sparked protests which ultimately contributed to Jammeh’s electoral defeat.
In the face of rising dissent, during June 2016 Jammeh, speaking at a series of campaign rallies, reportedly called members of the Mandinka ethnic group ‘enemies, foreigners’ and threatened to kill them one by one: the statements were roundly condemned by the UN Special Advisor on the prevention of genocide and other key figures. Jammeh’s introduction of such rhetoric into the political arena, in a country that previously did not have a history of ethnic violence and where political parties were multi-ethnic, was viewed as a cynical and extremely worrying development.
Jammeh’s 22-year period in power came to an end in December 2016, when he was defeated at the polls by Adama Barrow of the UDP. Jammeh initially accepted the results, but then declared a state of emergency, prompting tens of thousands of Gambians to flee into neighbouring Senegal, fearing bloodshed. Pressured by regional body Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) with the threat of military intervention, however, he eventually accepted the result of the polls and went into exile. The UDP also won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections in April 2017, defeating Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
The race saw a rise in communal tensions in Jammeh’s home region, Foni. This was interpreted as the result of Jammeh’s efforts the previous year to stoke ethnic divisions, with supporters of the two main rival parties defined in communal terms despite both having a long history of multi-ethnic support. Following Jammeh’s singling out of Mandinka in a series of vitriolic speeches, the UDP became associated with that community, whereas Jammeh’s own APRC was identified with Jola.
Ethnic tensions have lingered since the election. In August 2017, a group of mainly Jola soldiers were detained and then discharged. The government said that this had nothing to do with ethnicity but represented an attempt to rid the military of Jammeh loyalists. Critics admitted that this might be necessary, given the army’s role in human rights abuses under the previous government, but that the process needed to become more transparent. In January 2018, APRC supporters were attacked by UDP activists when they were returning home from a rally in Busumbala. Four people were injured and had to be treated in hospital. It was the first time such political violence had occurred outside Foni.
Nevertheless, the new government has taken a number of steps to reverse the deterioration of the Gambia’s human rights environment under Jammeh, releasing political prisoners detained without trial, committing to lifting restrictive Jammeh-era laws limiting freedom of expression and revoking Jammeh’s designation of Gambia in 2015 as an Islamic republic, as well as the country’s declaration of withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. It also faced calls to disband Jammeh’s notorious paramilitary groups and to ensure that those responsible for human rights violations against Jammeh opponents be held accountable. A Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission was proposed to help victims and their families tell their stories and to address past violations. Following Barrow’s inauguration however, some disturbing reports of security force violations continued, for instance in the context of protests by anti-mining demonstrators. Still, a very concrete sign of change came at the beginning of January 2019, when the Truth Commission held its first hearing.
The country has hosted recurring waves of refugees from Senegal’s conflicted Casamance region – home to many Diola/Jola, an ethnic group also found in Gambia — since hostilities broke out there in 2006. Jammeh was viewed as sympathetic to the Casamançais and their cause, as they belong to the same ethnic group, the Jola, as him, and he came from near the Senegal border. Gambia’s refugee policy has therefore long been generous with an emphasis on self-integration. Refugees are settled in villages along the border, and enjoy both the right to work and access to social services, including health care and education. Where there have been problems, these have revolved around inconsistent interpretation, bureaucratic hurdles and the need for repeated renegotiation and reassertion of these rights. There were some worries after the end of Jammeh’s rule that there might be a backlash against Casamançais refugees, but so far there have not been any reports.
Under Jammeh, many Gambians were also forced by poverty, lack of opportunity and repression at home to migrate: according to a 2017 UNICEF analysis, nearly 0.5 per cent of Gambia’s population were migrating every year – the highest rate proportionately of any African country. However, the recent political changes and the dreadful conditions, especially in migrant detention centres in Libya, as well as the considerable risks many migrants face along the route northwards has encouraged some Gambian migrants to return. At the same time, returnees can themselves pose a challenge to the new government and international agencies, if they feel that they are not getting the support they need to establish themselves in Gambia. In November 2017, a group of recently returned people demonstrated outside the Banjul office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). IOM had recently commenced an EU-funded programme of flights and reintegration packages for migrants choosing to return. Only a small proportion of returnees had received support by then, but the programme has since picked up pace. By February 2019, over 3,600 Gambian returnees had been flown back by IOM since the programme started in 2017; over 70 per cent had come back from Libya. Almost two-thirds have received some form of reintegration support. Nearly all the returnees are opting to start microbusinesses in retail, construction and transport.
Updated May 2020
Gambia is the smallest country on the African mainland. It is a tropical, densely-populated West African nation of just over 10,000 square kilometres ranging inland from the Atlantic Ocean along either bank of the Gambia River. It is almost completely surrounded by Senegal, with which it shares a 750 kilometre-long border, except for the 60 kilometre-long access to the Atlantic. Its two largest cities are the capital Banjul and Serekunda, both on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Gambia River.
Very early settlement along the banks of the Gambia River is indicated by the presence of ancient stone circles; however, little is known about the peoples who initially settled in the region. During the fifth to eighth centuries, the region belonged to the Empire of Ghana, ruled by the Serahule (or Soninke) people. A Serahule community remains in Gambia, although many are descendants of those who migrated for work in the 19th century.
During the 13th century, the Mali Empire, under the Mandinka (or Mandé) people, took control of the region. The Empire flourished until the early 1500’s when it went into decline. The Mandinka people still represent a significant proportion of Gambia’s population today.
In 1455 and 1456, Portuguese-supported expeditions explored the coast and the Gambia River, drawn to the region by the prospect of gold and slaves. From the 17th century onwards, the Gambia River became a focal point for the European slave-trade. During the 18th century, the French and the British competed for control over the region, with the French administering the joint province of Senegambia, comprising Senegal and Gambia, from 1765 to 1783. That year, the British settlement of James Island was recognised in the Treaty of Versailles.
The British banned the international slave trade in 1807. As part of efforts to halt the trade, the United Kingdom established a military base on Banjul, then called Bathurst, island. In 1823, a settlement for freed slaves was established on MacCarthy Island. By the 1880’s, the British had grown increasingly worried about the strengthening French presence in Senegal, and so in 1888, the United Kingdom took control over the Gambia River including both river banks. It was then that Gambia became its own distinct country, comprising partly a colony and partly a protectorate.
Gambia gained its independence from the UK in 1965, and Dawda Jawara became the country’s first prime minister. He was elected its first president after it became a republic in 1970. Senegalese forces stepped in to help quell a coup in 1981; the following year Gambia joined with Senegal to form the Confederation of Senegambia. The alliance broke up in 1989.
In 1994, Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, a member of the Jola ethnic group, led a coup that overthrew the Jawara government and banned political activity. A Constitution setting up a new multi-party system was promulgated in 1996, but three major parties were barred from the polls. Jammeh won the elections that year and went on to win every subsequent national contest. Jammeh’s rule was notorious, characterised by widespread reports of extrajudicial killings and torture.
After more than 20 years in power, Jammeh was ousted in December 2016, when he was defeated at the polls by Adama Barrow of the United Democratic Party (UDP). Eventually, under duress, he accepted the result of the polls and went into exile. The UDP also won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections in April 2017, defeating Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC).
For 22 years, Gambia was ruled by the repressive regime of President Yahya Jammeh and his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC). His rule was characterized by widespread human rights abuses. His rule came to an end following an electoral defeat in the 2016 presidential elections, his successor Adama Barrow of the United Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP also subsequently won the 2017 elections against the APRC. Since then, a number of steps have been taken to improve justice and the rule of law
Gambia is predominately Muslim, and it has a mixed legal system with elements of English common law, customary law and Islamic law. Though Jammeh declared the country an Islamic republic in 2015, this was rescinded after the UDP came to power.
Updated May 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Bowman, J., Ominous Transition: Commerce and Colonial Expansion in the Senegambia and Guinea,1857-1919,Aldershot,Avebury,1996.
Gailey, H.A., Historical Dictionary of the Gambia, Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow Press, 1987.
Hughes, A and Perfect, D., A Political History of the Gambia, Rochester, Rochester University Press, 2006.
Reporters Without Borders, Deyda Hydara: The Death of a Journalist under Surveillance, May 2005.