Background Note: Gambia

PA Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Description: Historical, Political and Economic Overviews of the Countries of the World Date: Dec, 15 199212/15/92 Category: Country Data Region: Subsaharan Africa Country: Gambia Subject: Travel, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics, Military Affairs, Cultural Exchange, State Department [TEXT]

Official Name:

Republic of The Gambia


11,300 sq. km (4,361 sq. mi.) slightly more than twice the size of Delaware.
Capital--Banjul (pop. 44,000).
Flood plain of the Gambia River flanked by low hills.
Tropical; hot rainy season (June to November); cooler, dry season (November to May).
Noun and adjective--Gambian(s).
Population (1991 est.):
Annual growth rate (1991 est.):
Ethnic Groups:
Mandinka 42%, Fula 18%, Wolof 16%, Jola 10%, Serahuli 9%, other 4%, non-Gambian 1%.
Muslim 90%, Christian 9%, and animist 1%.
English (official), Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, other indigenous languages.
Years compulsory--none. Attendance--65% (ages 5-19). Literacy--30%.
Infant mortality rate--138/1,000. Life expectancy--men 47 yrs, women 51 yrs.
Work Force:
400,000, Agriculture--75%, Industry,commerce, and services--19%, Government--6%.
February 18, 1965.
April 24, 1970.
Executive--president (chief of state and head of government), vice president, cabinet. Legislative-- unicameral House of Representatives. Judicial--Supreme Court.
Capital and 5 divisions.
Political parties:
Progressive People's Party (PPP) (Ruling party); Gambia People's Party (GPP), National Convention Party (NCP), Gambia People's Democratic Party (GPDP), People's Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), United Party (UP).
Universal at 21.
Three horizontal bands of red, blue, and green, with blue center bordered by two white stripes.
GDP (1991):
$331 million.
Annual growth rate:
Per capita income:
Natural resources:
Seismic studies show that oil may be present.
Agriculture (20% of GDP):
Products--peanuts, rice, millet, sorghum, fish, palm kernels, vegetables, livestock, forestry. Peanuts account for 5% of GDP.
Industry (12% of GDP):
Types--peanut products, construction, brewing, soft drinks, agricultural machinery assembly, small woodworking and metal working, clothing.
Trade (1991 est.):
Exports--$127 million, including re- export of various goods (83%), peanuts (8%), palm kernels, fish, and other domestic products. Major markets--UK, other EC countries, West African neighbors. Imports--$167 million, including textiles, foodstuffs, machinery, transportation equipment, 62% for domestic consumption, 38% for re-export. Major suppliers--UK, other EC countries, China, Japan, and other Asian countries, West African neighbors.
Official exchange rate (1992 est.):
9.25 Dalasis=US$1.
US economic aid received (FY1992):
$8 million--mainly agricultural and private sector development projects.


A wide variety of ethnic groups live side by side in The Gambia with a minimum of inter-tribal friction, each preserving its own language and traditions. The Mandinka tribe is the largest, followed by the Fula, Wolof, Jola, and Serahuli groups. Approximately 2,500 non-Africans live in The Gambia, including Europeans and many families of Lebanese origin. Muslims constitute over 95% of the population. Christians of different denominations account for most of the remainder. Gambians officially observe the holidays of both religions and practice religious tolerance. More than 80% of Gambians live in rural villages, although more and more young people come to the capital in search of work, education, and broader horizons. While urban migration, development projects, and modernization are bringing more and more Gambians into contact with European habits and values, the traditional emphasis on the extended family, as well as indigenous forms of dress and celebration, remain integral parts of everyday life. The Gambia was once part of the Empire of Ghana and the Kingdom of the Songhais. The first written accounts of the region come from records of Arab traders in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. Arab traders established the trans-Saharan trade route for slaves, gold, and ivory. In the 15th century, the Portuguese took over this trade using maritime routes. At that time, The Gambia was part of the Kingdom of Mali. In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, Antonio, Prior of Crato, sold exclusive trade rights on the Gambia River to English merchants; this grant was confirmed by letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I. In 1618, James I granted a charter to a British company for trade with The Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). During the late 17th century and throughout the 18th, England and France struggled continuously for political and commercial supremacy in the regions of the Senegal and Gambia Rivers. The 1783 Treaty of Versailles gave Great Britain possession of The Gambia, but the French retained an enclave at Albreda on the north bank of the river (ceded to the United Kingdom in 1857). As many as 3 million slaves may have been taken from the region during the 3 centuries that the trade operated. It is not known how many were taken by Arab traders. Most of those taken were sold to Europeans by other Africans; some were prisoners of inter-tribal wars, some were sold because of unpaid debts, while others were kidnapped. Slaves were initially sent to Europe to work as servants until the market for labor expanded in the West Indies and North America in the 18th century. In 1807, slave trading was abolished throughout the British Empire, and the British tried unsuccessfully to end the slave traffic in The Gambia. They established the military post of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816. In the ensuing years, Banjul was at times under the jurisdiction of the governor general in Sierra Leone. In 1843, it was made a separate British colony. Beginning in 1866, The Gambia and Sierra Leone were reunited under a single administration, but in 1888, The Gambia became a separate entity again. An 1889 agreement with France established the present boundaries, and The Gambia became a British Crown Colony, divided for administrative purposes into the colony (city of Banjul and the surrounding area) and the protectorate (remainder of the territory). The Gambia received its own executive and legislative councils in 1901 and gradually progressed toward self-government. A 1906 ordinance abolished slavery. During World War II, Gambian troops fought with the Allies in Burma, and Banjul served as an air stop for the US Army Air Corps and a port of call for allied naval convoys. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped overnight in Banjul en route to and from the Casablanca Conference in 1943, marking the first visit to the African continent by an American president in office. After World War II, the pace of constitutional advance quickened, and following general elections in 1962, full internal self-government was granted in 1963. The Gambia achieved independence on February 18, 1965, as a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. Shortly thereafter, the government proposed conversion from a monarchy to a republic with an elected president replacing the British monarch as chief of state. The proposal failed to receive the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, but the results won widespread attention abroad as testimony to The Gambia's observance of secret balloting, honest elections, and civil rights and liberties. On April 24, 1970, The Gambia became a republic following a majority- approved referendum. The Gambia has been led since independence by President Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who has been re-elected five times. The peace and stability of the Jawara era have been broken only once, in a violent coup attempt in 1981. The coup was led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who, on two occasions, had unsuccessfully sought election to parliament. After a week of violence which left several hundred dead, Jawara, in London when the attack began, appealed to Senegal for help. Senegalese troops defeated the rebel force. In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Senegal and The Gambia signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. The result, the Senegambia Confederation, aimed eventually to combine the armed forces of the two nations and unify economies and currencies. The Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.


According to the constitution promulgated on April 24, 1970, the government is divided into independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Executive power is vested in a president, popularly elected for a 5-year term. The president appoints the vice president and the cabinet. The legislature is composed of 51 members as follows: 36 members of the House of Representatives elected by universal adult suffrage for 5-year terms; 8 members nominated by the president; 5 tribal chiefs elected by the house of chiefs; the attorney general (ex-officio); and the speaker, elected by the members of the house. The judiciary consists of a supreme court, the court of appeals, and various subordinate courts. Judges are appointed by the central government. Local government varies. Banjul has an elected town council. Five rural divisions exist, each with a council containing a majority of elected members. Each council has its own treasury and is responsible for local government services. The tribal chiefs retain traditional powers authorized by customary law.
Principal Government Officials
President--Alhaji Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara Vice President--Alhaji Saihou Sulayman Sabally Ambassador to the US and the UN--Ousman A. Sallah The Gambia maintains an embassy at 1155 - 15th Street, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005. Tel. 202-785-1399. Its UN Mission is located at 820 2nd Avenue, Ste. 900-C , New York, NY 10017. Tel. 212-949-6640.


The Gambian national army numbers approximately 900. Through a bilateral agreement, Nigeria has provided the Gambian army with technical assistance in the form of a commander for the army and a training team. The Gambia national army also receives training from the United Kingdom. Members of the force participated in the monitoring group of the peace-keeping force deployed during the Liberian civil war beginning in 1990. Responsibilities for internal security and law enforcement rest with the Gambian police/gendarme force under the Inspector General of Police and the Ministry of Interior.


The Gambia is one of the oldest existing multi-party democracies in Africa. Since independence, it has conducted freely-contested elections every 5 years. Gambians enjoy full freedom of speech and the right to form political parties in opposition to the government, along with a criminal justice system with a reputation for fairness and respect for individual rights. The Gambia's human rights record is often put forward as an example for other nations. The People's Progressive Party (PPP), headed by President Jawara, has dominated Gambian politics for nearly 30 years. After spearheading the movement toward complete independence from Britain, the PPP was voted into power and has never been seriously challenged by any opposition party. In the country's most recent elections (April 1992), the PPP captured 25 of 36 elected seats in parliament and 58% of the popular vote for president. The principal opposition party, the National Convention Party (NCP) won 6 seats and 22% of the presidential vote for its party leader, Sherrif M. Dibba. Other opposition parties include the Gambia People's Party (GPP), the People's Democratic Organization for Independence and Socialism (PDOIS), and the Gambian People's Democratic Party (PDP). The next national elections will be held in 1997.


The Gambian economy is characterized by traditional subsistence agriculture, historic reliance on peanuts or groundnuts for export earnings, and a re-export trade built up around its ocean port, low import duties, minimal administrative procedures, and a fluctuating exchange rate with no exchange controls. Three sectors of the economy-- horticulture, fisheries, and tourism--have experienced significant growth during recent years, and are expected to be the focus of export-oriented investment in the 1990s. Agriculture accounts for 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 75% of the labor force. Within agriculture, peanut production accounts for 5% of GDP, other crops 8.3%, livestock 4.4%, fishing 1.8% and forestry 0.5%. Industry accounts for 12% of GDP, of which manufacturing is 6%. The limited amount of manufacturing is primarily agriculturally- based (e.g., peanut processing, bakeries, a brewery, and a tannery). Other manufacturing activities include soap, soft drinks, and clothing. Services account for the remaining 46% of GDP. In FY 1991, nearly all domestically produced exports were agricultural products, amounting to about 17% of GDP. Of that percentage, peanuts, the major commodity, accounted for half. The other 50% include fish, lobster, and shrimp (24%), horticultural commodities (9%), and other products, such as cotton, hides, and live cattle (17%). In FY 1991 the United Kingdom was The Gambia's major export market, accounting for 25% of the total, followed by Netherlands with 20%, and Belgium with 16%. China was the major source of imports, accounting for 25% of the total, followed closely by the United Kingdom and France. The Gambia reports no exports going to the United States but does report that 4% of imports came from there. Trade in re- exports is more than three times larger than that in domestically produced exports. In 1985, the Government of The Gambia began a major economic recovery program. Reforms to date include the abolition of price controls, elimination of interest rate and credit controls, floating of the exchange rate, public sector retrenchment, privatization of a number of state-owned enterprises, and a more disciplined fiscal and monetary policy. There is presently one major US investment in the country, a shrimp trawler operation. An official US investment mission visited in November 1991.


Although The Gambia follows a formal policy of non-alignment, it maintains particularly close relations with the United Kingdom, Senegal, and other African members of the Commonwealth. The Gambia takes an active interest in international--especially African and Arab--affairs, although its representation abroad is limited. President Jawara served as chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) peace committee, which sought to end the Iran-Iraq conflict. As chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1990-91, Jawara played a critical role in directing that organization's efforts to resolve the Liberian civil war. ECOWAS succeeded in bringing about a cease-fire and negotiating a peace agreement which seeks to resolve the conflict through democratic elections.


US policy is to expand and strengthen its friendly ties with The Gambia. The United States provides about $8 million worth of economic and technical assistance through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), primarily for agricultural and private sector development. A $1.4 million program in maternal health care is carried out for USAID by Catholic Relief Services. US assistance to The Gambia totals about $8 million annually. The Peace Corps program involves about 50 volunteers, mainly engaged in forestry, agriculture, and secondary school teaching. The US also provides military training to the Gambian army through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--Arlene Render Political/Consular Officer--Gregory N. Hicks Administrative Officer--Theodore M. Leinhart USAID Representative--Bonnie Pounds Peace Corps Country Director--Nanette Hegamin The US embassy in The Gambia is in Fajara on Pipeline Road (Kairaba Avenue). (Tel. [220] 92858/92856/91970; FAX [220] 92475). The USAID offices are in Banjul at 60 Leman St., (Tel. 220 28573/28533). The Peace Corps office (Tel. [220] 92466) is on Pipeline Road (Kairaba Avenue), one city block from the Embassy. (###)


Climate and clothing:
The Gambia's sub-tropical climate has a distinct hot, rainy season (mid-May to mid-November). During the cold, dry season (mid-November to mid-May), light jackets and sweaters are often worn.
Sanitation in Banjul is fair, and tap water is potable. Immunizations, and antimalaria suppressants are recommended. Mosquitoes carry a chloroquine-resistant variety of malaria.
Telex and fax services are available to the US, Europe, and Dakar. Radiotelephone service operates to the UK, most of Europe, and the west coast of Africa. Satellite-telephone service is available to Europe and the US. Banjul is 5 standard time zones ahead of eastern standard time.
Banjul is 25 minutes by air from Dakar, where worldwide air connections are frequent and excellent. Direct flights to London and Brussels operate frequently. Taxis are available at stands; it is advisable to agree on the fare in advance.
Visas for American citizens are required and should be obtained before arrival from the Gambian Embassy in Washington, DC, the Gambian UN Mission in New York, or Gambian missions in other countries.


Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC -- December 1992 -- Editor: Gloria Beasley Department of State Publication 8014 Background Notes Series -- This material is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402 Contents of this publication are not copyrighted unless indicated. If not copyrighted, the material may be reproduced without consent; citation of the publication as the source is appreciated. Permission to reproduce any copyrighted material (including graphics) must be obtained from the original source.(###)