The Gambia, officially the Republic of The Gambia, is a country in Western Africa. The Gambia is often referred to as ‘The Smiling Coast’. It is the smallest country within mainland Africa, and is surrounded by Senegal, except for its western coast on the Atlantic Ocean. The Gambia is situated on both sides of the lower reaches of the Gambia River, the nation’s namesake, which flows through the center of The Gambia and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. It has an area of 10,689 square kilometres (4,127 sq mi) with a population of 1,857,181 as of the April 2013 census. Banjul is the Gambian capital and the largest cities are Serekunda and Brikama.
The Gambia shares historical roots with many other West African nations in the slave trade, which was the key factor in the placing and keeping of a colony on the Gambia River, first by the Portuguese, during which era it was known as A Gâmbia. Later, on 25 May 1765, The Gambia was made a part of the British Empire when the government formally assumed control, establishing the Province of Senegambia. In 1965, The Gambia gained independence under the leadership of Dawda Jawara, who ruled until Yahya Jammeh seized power in a bloodless 1994 coup. Adama Barrow became The Gambia’s third president in January 2017, after defeating Jammeh in the December 2016 elections. Jammeh initially accepted the results, then refused to accept them, which triggered a constitutional crisis and military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States, resulting in his exile.
The Gambia’s economy is dominated by farming, fishing and, especially, tourism. In 2015, 48.6% of the population lived in poverty. In rural areas, poverty is even more widespread, at almost 70%.
Arab traders provided the first written accounts of the Gambia area in the ninth and tenth centuries. During the tenth century, Muslim merchants and scholars established communities in several West African commercial centers. Both groups established trans-Saharan trade routes, leading to a large export trade of local people as slaves, along with gold and ivory, as well as imports of manufactured goods.
By the 11th or 12th century, the rulers of kingdoms such as Takrur, a monarchy centered on the Senegal River just to the north, ancient Ghana and Gao had converted to Islam and had appointed to their courts Muslims who were literate in the Arabic language. At the beginning of the 14th century, most of what is today called The Gambia was part of the Mali Empire. The Portuguese reached this area by sea in the mid-15th century and began to dominate overseas trade.
In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, António, Prior of Crato, sold exclusive trade rights on the Gambia River to English merchants. Letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I confirmed the grant. In 1618, King James I of England granted a charter to an English company for trade with the Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Between 1651 and 1661, some parts of the Gambia – St. Andrew’s Island in the Gambia River including Fort Jakob, and St. Mary Island (modern day Banjul) and Fort Jillifree – came under the rule of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth now in modern-day Latvia, having been bought by Prince Jacob Kettler. The colonies were formally ceded to England in 1664.
During the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, the British Empire and the French Empire struggled continually for political and commercial supremacy in the regions of the Senegal River and the Gambia River. The British Empire occupied the Gambia when an expedition led by Augustus Keppel landed there following the Capture of Senegal in 1758. The 1783 First Treaty of Versailles gave Great Britain possession of the Gambia River, but the French retained a tiny enclave at Albreda on the river’s north bank. This was finally ceded to the United Kingdom in 1856.
As many as three million people may have been taken as slaves from this general region during the three centuries that the transatlantic slave trade operated. It is not known how many people were taken as slaves by inter-tribal wars or Muslim traders before the transatlantic slave trade began. Most of those taken were sold by other Africans to Europeans: some were prisoners of inter-tribal wars; some were victims sold because of unpaid debts, and many others were simply victims of kidnapping.
Traders initially sent people 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, the United Kingdom abolished the slave trade throughout its empire. It also tried, unsuccessfully, to end the slave trade in the Gambia. Slave ships intercepted by the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron in the Atlantic were also returned to the Gambia, with people who had been slaves released on MacCarthy Island far up the Gambia River where they were expected to establish new lives. The British established the military post of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816.
Gambia Colony and Protectorate (1821–1965):
An agreement with the French Republic in 1889 established the present boundaries. The Gambia became a British Crown colony called British Gambia, 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 it gradually progressed toward self-government. Slavery was abolished in 1906 and following a brief conflict between the British colonial forces and indigenous Gambians, British colonial authority was firmly established.
During World War II, some soldiers fought with the Allies of World War II. Though these soldiers fought mostly in Burma, some died closer to home and a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery is in Fajara (close to Banjul). Banjul contained an airstrip for the US Army Air Forces and a port of call for Allied naval convoys.
After World War II, the pace of constitutional reform increased. Following general elections in 1962, the United Kingdom granted full internal self-governance in the following year.
The Gambia achieved independence on 18 February 1965, as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth, with Elizabeth II as Queen of the Gambia, represented by the Governor-General. Shortly thereafter, the national government held a referendum proposing that the country become a republic. This referendum 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, civil rights, and liberties.
On 24 April 1970, The Gambia became a republic within the Commonwealth, following a second referendum. Prime Minister Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara assumed the office of President, an executive post, combining the offices of head of state and head of government.
President Sir Dawda Jawara was re-elected five times. An attempted coup on 29 July 1981 followed a weakening of the economy and allegations of corruption against leading politicians. The coup attempt occurred while President Jawara was visiting London and was carried out by the leftist National Revolutionary Council, composed of Kukoi Samba Sanyang’s Socialist and Revolutionary Labour Party (SRLP) and elements of the Field Force, a paramilitary force which constituted the bulk of the country’s armed forces.
President Jawara requested military aid from Senegal, which deployed 400 troops to The Gambia on 31 July. By 6 August, some 2,700 Senegalese troops had been deployed, defeating the rebel force. Between 500 and 800 people were killed during the coup and the ensuing violence. In 1982, in the aftermath of the 1981 attempted coup, Senegal and The Gambia signed a treaty of confederation. The Senegambia Confederation aimed to combine the armed forces of the two states and to unify their economies and currencies. After just seven years, The Gambia permanently withdrew from the confederation in 1989.
In 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) deposed the Jawara government and banned opposition political activity. Lieutenant Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state. Jammeh was just 29 years old at the time of the coup. The AFPRC announced a transition plan to return to a democratic civilian government. The Provisional Independent Electoral Commission (PIEC) was established in 1996 to conduct national elections and transformed into the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in 1997 and became responsible for the registration of voters and for the conduct of elections and referendums.
In late 2001 and early 2002, The Gambia completed a full cycle of presidential, legislative, and local elections, which foreign observers deemed free, fair, and transparent. President Yahya Jammeh, who was elected to continue in the position he had assumed during the coup, took the oath of office again on 21 December 2001. Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) maintained its strong majority in the National Assembly, particularly after the main opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) boycotted the legislative elections.
On 2 October 2013, the Gambian interior minister announced that The Gambia would leave the Commonwealth with immediate effect, ending 48 years of membership of the organisation. The Gambian government said it had “decided that The Gambia will never be a member of any neo-colonial institution and will never be a party to any institution that represents an extension of colonialism”.
Incumbent President Jammeh faced opposition leaders Adama Barrow from the Independent Coalition of parties and Mamma Kandeh from the Gambia Democratic Congress party in the December 2016 presidential elections. The Gambia sentenced main opposition leader and human rights advocate Ousainou Darboe to 3 years in prison in July 2016, disqualifying him from running in the presidential election.
Following the 1 December 2016 elections, the elections commission declared Adama Barrow the winner of the presidential election. Jammeh, who had ruled for 22 years, first announced he would step down after losing the 2016 election before declaring the results void and calling for a new vote, sparking a constitutional crisis and leading to an invasion by an ECOWAS coalition. On 20 January 2017, Jammeh announced that he had agreed to step down and would leave the country.
On 14 February 2017, The Gambia began the process of returning to its membership of the Commonwealth and formally presented its application to re-join to Secretary-General Patricia Scotland on 22 January 2018. Boris Johnson, who became the first British Foreign Secretary to visit The Gambia since the country gained independence in 1965, announced that the British government welcomed The Gambia’s return to the Commonwealth. The Gambia officially rejoined the Commonwealth on 8 February 2018.
The Gambia is a very small and narrow country whose borders mirror the meandering Gambia River.
The Gambia is less than 50 kilometres (31 miles) wide at its widest point, with a total area of 11,295 sq km (4,361 sq mi). About 1,300 square kilometres (500 square miles) (11.5%) of The Gambia’s area are covered by water. It is the smallest country on the African mainland. In comparative terms, The Gambia has a total area slightly less than that of the island of Jamaica.
Senegal surrounds The Gambia on three sides, with 80 km (50 mi) of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean marking its western extremity.
The present boundaries were defined in 1889 after an agreement between the United Kingdom and France. During the negotiations between the French and the British in Paris, the French initially gave the British around 200 miles (320 km) of the Gambia River to control. Starting with the placement of boundary markers in 1891, it took nearly 15 years after the Paris meetings to determine the final borders of The Gambia. The resulting series of straight lines and arcs gave the British control of areas about 10 miles (16 km) north and south of the Gambia River.
The Gambia has a liberal, market-based economy characterized by traditional subsistence agriculture, a historic reliance on groundnuts (peanuts) for export earnings, a re-export trade built up around its ocean port, low import duties, minimal administrative procedures, a fluctuating exchange rate with no exchange controls, and a significant tourism industry.
Agriculture accounts for roughly 30% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs about 70% of the labor force. Within agriculture, peanut production accounts for 6.9% of GDP, other crops 8.3%, livestock 5.3%, fishing 1.8%, and forestry 0.5%. Industry accounts for about 8% of GDP and services around 58%. The limited amount of manufacturing is primarily agricultural-based (e.g., peanut processing, bakeries, a brewery, and a tannery). Other manufacturing activities involve soap, soft drinks, and clothing.
Previously, the United Kingdom and the EU constituted the major Gambian export markets. However, in recent years Senegal, the United States, and Japan have become significant trade partners of the Gambia. In Africa, Senegal represented the biggest trade partner of the Gambia in 2007, which is a defining contrast to previous years that had Guinea-Bissau and Ghana as equally important trade partners. Globally, Denmark, the United States, and China have become important source countries for Gambian imports. The UK, Germany, Ivory Coast, and the Netherlands also provide a fair share of Gambian imports. The Gambian trade deficit for 2007 was $331 million.
The system of transportation in the Gambia mixes both public and private operations and consists of a system of roads (both paved and unpaved), water and air transportation. The Trans-Gambia Highway runs along both sides of the river Gambia, which bisects the country. The river may be crossed by ferry or the Senegambia bridge. There are no railways in the country.
While historically some small hand powered railroads existed in the harbor areas, these are long absent. In 2009 an agreement was signed between Japan and Gambia for construction of railway to Senegal.
As of 2002, there were 2,700 km of roads, including 956 km of paved roads. There were 106,600 passenger cars and 142,300 commercial vehicles were in use. The most important highway in the Gambia is the Trans-Gambia Highway.
The Gambia River not only provides important internal transport but is also an international commercial link. Oceangoing vessels can travel 240 km upstream. In 2004 there were 390 km of total waterways. Banjul, the principal port, receives about 300 ships annually. Ferries operate across the river and between Banjul and Barra.
With the construction of major all-weather roads on both sides of the Gambia River, the waterway has become less significant for passenger traffic.
Flag of the Gambia:
The national flag of the Gambia consists of three horizontal red, blue and green bands separated by two thin white fimbriations. Adopted in 1965 to replace the British Blue Ensign defaced with the arms of the Gambia Colony and Protectorate, it has been the flag of the Republic of the Gambia since the country gained independence that year. It remained unchanged throughout the Gambia’s seven-year confederation with Senegal.
The British first arrived in what is now modern-day Gambia in 1661, when they conquered James Island. They proceeded to construct forts around the confluence of the Gambia River with the Atlantic Ocean, and gradually expanded their control upstream. This area became a protectorate in the 1820s under the jurisdiction of Sierra Leone, and eventually emerged as a separate crown colony of the United Kingdom within its colonial empire in 1888. This newfound status gave the Gambia its own “distinctive” colonial flag. This is because colonies were permitted to utilize the British Blue Ensign and deface it with the arms of the territory under the Colonial Naval Defence Act 1865. The arms of the Gambia at the time consisted of a circle depicting an elephant, a palm tree and hills, along with the letter “G” standing for the first letter of the territory’s name.
The Gambia was granted self-governance in 1963. The defaced blue ensign continued to be used until full independence was granted in 1965. The winning design for the new flag was created by Louis Thomasi, who worked as an accountant. It is one of the few African flags that does not utilize the colors of the country’s leading political party, since its design “has no political basis”. It was first hoisted at midnight on February 18, 1965, the day the Gambia became an independent country. In 1982, the Gambia formed a confederation with Senegal, which lasted for seven years before its dissolution in 1989. However, this closer union did not result in change of national symbols, and the Gambian flag continued to be flown during this time.
The colors of the flag carry cultural, political, and regional meanings. The blue alludes to the Gambia River, which is the nation’s key feature and is where the country derives its name from. The red evokes the sun – given the Gambia’s close proximity to the Equator – as well as the savanna, while the thin white stripes represent “unity and peace”. The green epitomizes the forest and the agricultural goods that the Gambian people are heavily dependent on, both for exports and their personal use.