U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: The Gambia, July 1996
Bureau of African Affairs
Prepared and released by the Bureau of African Affairs,
Office of West African Affairs
Official Name: Republic of The Gambia
Area: 11,300 sq. km. (4,361 sq. mi.) slightly more than twice the size
Cities: Capital--Banjul (pop. 42,326).
Terrain: Flood plain of the Gambia River flanked by low hills.
Climate: Tropical; hot rainy season (June to November); cooler, dry
season (November to May).
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Gambian(s).
Population (1993 est.): 1.014 million.
Annual growth rate (1993 est.): 4.1 percent.
Ethnic groups: Mandinka 42 percent, Fula 18 percent, Wolof 16
percent, Jola 10 percent, Serahuli 9 percent, other 4 percent, non-
Gambian 1 percent.
Religions: Muslim 90 percent, Christian 9 percent, and animist 1
Languages: English (official), Mandinka, Wolof, Fula, other
Education: Years compulsory--none. Attendance--68.7 percent
primary, 20 percent secondary. Literacy--25 percent.
Health: Infant mortality rate--85/1,000. Life expectancy--men 47 yrs.,
women 51 yrs.
Work force: 400,000. Agriculture--75 percent, Industry, commerce,
and services--19 percent, Government--7 percent.
Independence: February 18, 1965.
Constitution: April 24, 1970 (suspended after July 1994).
Branches: Parliament suspended since July 1994, court system
functioning but country ruled primarily through government decree.
Subdivisions: capital and 5 divisions.
Political parties: currently banned.
Flag: three horizontal bands of red, blue, and green, with blue center
bordered by two white stripes.
GDP (1994): $310 million.
Annual growth rate: 2 percent.
Per capita income: $309.
Natural resources: Seismic studies show that oil may be present.
Agriculture (23 percent of GDP): Products--peanuts, rice, millet,
sorghum, fish, palm kernels, vegetables, livestock, forestry.
Industry (11 percent of GDP): Types--peanut products, construction,
brewing, soft drinks, agricultural machinery assembly, small
woodworking and metal working, clothing.
Trade (1994 est.): Exports--$120 million, including re-export of
various goods (83 percent), peanuts (8 percent), palm kernels, fish, and
other domestic products. Major markets--UK, other EU countries, and
Senegal. Imports--$174 million, including textiles, foodstuffs,
machinery, transportation equipment, 62 percent for domestic
consumption, 38 percent for re-export. Major suppliers--UK, other EU
countries, China, Japan, and other Asian countries, West African
Official exchange rate (1996 est.): 9.85 Dalasis=US$1.
US economic aid received (FY1995): $1 million in the form of
assistance to democracy and human rights programs and food and
PEOPLE AND HISTORY
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. Approximately 2,500 non-Africans live in
The Gambia, including Europeans and many families of Lebanese
Muslims constitute over 95 percent of the population. Christians of
different denominations account for most of the remainder. Gambians
officially observe the holidays of both religions and practice religious
More than 80 percent of Gambians live in rural villages, although more
and more young people come to the capital in search of work and
education. While urban migration, development projects, and
modernization are bringing more and more Gambians into contact with
Western 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 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
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
Until a military coup in July 1994, The Gambia was led by President
Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who wasre-elected five times. The relative
stability of the Jawara era was broken first 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 severalhundred 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.
In July 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC)
seized power in a military coup d'etat. The AFPRC deposed the
democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Captain
Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state.
The AFPRC has announced a transition schedule for return to
democratic, civilian government before the end of 1996. It has denied
its intention to stay in power and, although delayed, has proceeded with
the transition timetable. Presidential elections are scheduled for
September 11, 1996.
The 1970 constitution, which divided the government into independent
executive, legislative, and judicial branches, was suspended after the
1994 military coup. As part of its announced transition process, the
AFPRC established the Constitution Review Commission (CRC)
through decree in March 1995. In accordance with the timetable for
the transition to a democratically elected government, the commission
has drafted a new constitution for The Gambia to be approved or
disapproved in a referendum to be held August 7, 1996. The draft
provides for a strong presidential government, a unicameral legislature,
an independent judiciary, and protection of human rights.
Local government in The Gambia 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
Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council Chairman--Captain Yahya
Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council Vice Chairman--Captain
Ambassador to the US--position is currently vacant
UN Representative--Momodou Kebba Jallow
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, Suite 900-C , New York, NY 10017. Tel.
The Gambian national army numbers approximately 900. The
Gambian army had received technical assistance and training from the
United States and United Kingdom prior to the coup. With the
withdrawal of this aid, the army has sought assistance from other
Members of the force have participated in the monitoring group of the
peace-keeping force (ECOMOG) 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.
Prior to the coup d'etat in July 1994, The Gambia had been one of the
oldest existing multi-party democracies in Africa. It had conducted
freely-contested elections every 5 years. Since the military coup,
freedom of speech has been severely restricted and the right to form
political parties in opposition to the government has been banned.
The People's Progressive Party (PPP), headed by former president
Jawara, dominated Gambian politics for nearly 30 years. After
spearheading the movement toward complete independence from
Britain, the PPP was voted into power and was never seriously
challenged by any opposition party. The country's most recent
elections were held in April 1992. Presidential elections are scheduled
to be held on September 11, 1996 and legislative elections on
December 11, 1996.
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.
Agriculture accounts for 23 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)
and employs 75 percent of the labor force. Within agriculture, peanut
production accounts for 5.3 percent of GDP, other crops 8.3 percent,
livestock 4.4 percent, fishing 1.8 percent and forestry 0.5 percent.
Industry accounts for 12 percent of GDP and forestry .5 percent.
Manufacturing accounts for 6 percent of the industry share of GDP.
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 19 percent of GDP.
In FY 1995, the U.K. was The Gambia's major export market,
accounting for 26 percent total, followed by Senegal with 22 percent
and France with 21 percent. The U.K. was the major source of
imports, accounting for 14 percent followed by Belgium, the
Netherlands and Cote D'Ivoire. The Gambia reports 3 percent of its
exports going to and 5 percent of its imports coming from the United
The Gambia followed a formal policy of non-alignment throughout
most of former president Jawara's reign. It maintains particularly close
relations with the United Kingdom, Senegal, and other African
In November 1995, Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council
Chairman Jammeh announced the establishment of diplomatic relations
with Libya. The country has also established relations with Taiwan.
The Gambia takes an active interest in international --especially
African and Arab-- affairs, although its representation abroad is
limited. As member of the Economic Community of West African
States (ECOWAS), The Gambia has played an active role in directing
that organization's efforts to resolve the Liberian civil war. It has
participated actively in the process of negotiating a peace agreement
and has contributed troops to the community's cease-fire monitoring
U.S. policy is to expand and strengthen its friendly ties with The
Gambia through promotion of the return to democratic rule and respect
for human rights. The U.S. development effort in The Gambia
continues in the form of such programs as food aid (through Catholic
Relief Services) assistance in the transition to democracy and the work
of the peace corps. The Peace Corps program involves about 75
volunteers mainly engaged in forestry, agriculture, and secondary
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--Gerald W. Scott
Political/Consular Officer--Kimberly Kelly
Deputy Chief of Mission--Douglas Rohn
Peace Corps Country Director--Wayne Nishek
The US Embassy in The Gambia is in Fajara on Pipeline Road
(Kairaba Avenue). (Tel.  392856; Fax  392475). The Peace
Corps office (Tel.  392466) 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
Health: Sanitation in Banjul is fair, and tap water is potable.
Immunizations, and antimalaria suppressants are recommended.
Mosquitoes carry a chloroquine-resistant variety of malaria.
Telecommunications: 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.
Transportation: 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: 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
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