All About Gambia


Gambia is a West African county that is mainland Africa’s smallest. It is bordered by Senegal on all sides but the west, which it the Atlantic coast.

The borders generally follow the Gambia River, which flows through the middle of the country and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The estimated 2019 population is 2.23 million, which ranks 146th in the world and the area is 10,500 sq. km.

Gambia was granted independence from the U.K. on February 18, 1965. It became part of the British Commonwealth. The capital city is Banjul.

The country shares history with other West African nations in that it was part of the slave trade. The Portuguese first settled the area and were followed by the British. There has been relative stability since independence, with a brief period of military control in 1994.

Gambia is agriculturally rich. In addition to farming, the economy also has large fishing and tourist services. One third of the population lives below the poverty line of $1.25 per day.


The first written accounts of Gambia were from Arab traders in the 9th and 10th centuries. During that time, Muslim merchants created settlement in many commercial centers in the region. The trans-Saharan trade was developed to exchanging gold, ivory, and slaves.

The rulers of the Takrur kingdom in the 11th and 12th centuries converted to Islam and appointed Muslim advisors. What is now Gambia was a part of the Mali Empire in the 14th century. In the mid-15th century Portuguese traders began to dominate the area’s trade.

Antonio, Prior of Crato and claimant to the Portuguese throne, sold trade rights to English merchants in 1588. In 1618, a charter was granted for English trade with modern day Ghana and Gambia. Some parts of the area were under Courland’s rule between 1651 and 1661.

Throughout the 18th century, France and Britain struggled for control of the region. Gambia was occupied by Britain after Augustus Keppel led an expedition there after Senegal was captured in 1758. The Treaty of Versailles in 1783 gave the Gambia River to Great Britain. The French retained an enclave at Albreda. In 1856, this was ceded to the U.K.

Estimates indicate as many as three million slaves may have been taken from Gambia during three hundred years of trading. The number of slaves taken in inter-tribal warfare is unknown. Most taken were sold by other Africans to Europeans.

Until the slave labor market expanded into North America, most were sent to Europe to work as servants. The British abolished the slave trade in the Empire in 1807. Britain also attempted to end it in Gambia. This was ultimately unsuccessful. Bathurst, a military post, was formed in 1816. This is now modern Banjul. In 1888, Gambia became a separate colony.

An agreement with France set the current boundaries in 1889. The Gambia received its own legislative and executive bodies in 1901 and moved toward self-government. In 1906, Gambia passed a law abolishing slavery.

Gambian troops fought with the Allies in Burma during World War II. Gambia itself was an air and naval stop for the Allies. In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped in Banjul on his way to the Casablanca conference. This was the first visit by a sitting U.S. President to Africa.

The pace of constitutional reform quickened after World War II. After 1962 elections, Gambia was granted full self-governance. Independence was earned February 18, 1965 as a constitutional monarchy. Soon after, the government held a referendum proposing an elected president as head of state, rather than the British monarch. This failed to pass with a two-thirds majority, but the results were seen as an example of Gambia’s ability to have fair elections. Gambia became a republic on April 24, 1970 after a second referendum. Prime Minister Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara became head of state. Gambia was the last British colony in West Africa.

Dawda Jawara was re-elected five times. This stability was ended by a 1981 coup attempt. Kokoi Samba Sanyang, who had failed to win election to parliament two prior times, led the coup. After a week of fighting, Jawara, who was out of the country when the attack began, successfully appealed for Senegal’s help in defeating the rebels.

In the coup’s aftermath, Gambia and Senegal signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. This combined the two nations’ militaries and combined their currencies and economies. Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.

The Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) deposed Jawara in 1994 and banned opposition parties. The AFPRC’s chairman, Lieutenant Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, became the state’s head. A transition to civilian rule was planned and the Provisional Independent Electoral Commission (PIEC) was established to hold elections in 1996. This became the Independent Electoral Commission the next year.

Gambia finally completed full and free elections. Jammeh became president, continuing his position taken during the coup. His Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) kept a majority in the National Assembly. The main opposition party boycotted the elections.


A small, narrow country, Gambia’s borders mirror the Gambia River. At its widest point, the country is 30 miles wide. Total area is 11,300 sq. km. 1,300 sq. km. is covered by water. It is the African mainland’s smallest country. Area is comparable to Jamaica. There is 50 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean.

Gambia has a tropical climate. A very rainy and hot season runs from June to November. A dry season runs from November to May.

An 1889 agreement between the U.K. and France set the present boundaries.

Divisions of the Gambia

The country has five divisions and one city. The divisions and city are Lower River, Central River, North Bank, Upper River, Western, and Banjul.

Banjul, the capital, is classified as a city.

These divisions have further subdivisions in to 48 districts.


The country was one of Africa’s oldest multi-party democracies. Its elections occurred every five years and were freely contested. For nearly 30 years, president Jawara’s party, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), dominated politics. The last elections under the PPP regime were held in 1992.

After the 1994 coup, members of the PPP were banned from politics until 2001. Yahya Jammeg won 56 percent of the vote in 1996 elections. The APRC dominated the 1997 legislative elections and won 33 of 45 seats.

The ban on the PPP was lifted in 2001. Four opposition parties participated in that year’s elections. Jammeh again won the election, this time with 53 percent of the vote. The APRC kept its majority in the National Assembly. The opposition party, the United Democratic Party (UDP) boycotted the elections.

In 2006, Jammeh won again after the opposition party split earlier that year. There were some criticisms but the elections were considered fair.

In 2006, a planned military coup was uncovered. This forced the president to return from an overseas trip. Prominent army officials were arrested or fled the country. Some argued this was fabricated by the president, but no corroborating evidence has come forward to support this.

The constitution was suspended after the 1994 military coup. A commission was established to draft a new constitution, which was approved in 1996. It provided for a strong presidential government, an independent judiciary, a unicameral legislature, and human rights protections.

Foreign Relations and Military

Gambia’s policy was nonalignment during Jawara’s terms as president. Close relationships existed with Senegal, the U.K., and other African countries. The 1994 coup strained western relationships, especially the U.S. Until 2002 it suspended most non-humanitarian assistance. President Jammeh has strengthened ties with other nations such as Cuba, Taiwan, and Libya.

Gambia is active in international affairs, including efforts to resolve the Liberian Civil War and one in Sierra Leone. This included troop contributions to ceasefire monitoring groups. It has also sought to mediate issues in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. Gambia’s government believes Senegal participated in the 2006 failed coup attempt, straining their relations.

Gambia’s army has 1,900 personnel, which is under the Department of State for Defense’s authority. Before the 1994 coup, training and assistance were received from the U.K., U.S., China, Turkey, and Nigeria. Most of this was withdrawn but there is continued assistance from Turkey and new help from Libya.

Gambia’s forces participate in international peacekeeping missions, like the deployment in ECOMOG in Liberia. Other operations have been in Kosovo, Bosnia, Eritrea, East Timor, and the Republic of the Congo.


Gambia’s economy is liberal and market-based. Subsistence agriculture is a large part of the economy. There historically was reliance on peanuts for exports and use of the ocean port. Tourism also exists.

30 percent of GDP is derived from agriculture. It employs 70 percent of the labor force. Peanut production is 6.9 percent of GDP. Others are livestock (5.3 percent), fishing (1.8 percent), and forestry (.5 percent). The limited manufacturing is primarily based on agriculture. There are operations to manufacture soap, clothing, and soft drinks.

Senegal, Japan, and the U.S. have become significant trade partners in addition to the U.K. and E.U.

12 commercial banks operated in Gambia in 2009, including one Islamic bank. The Standard Chartered Bank dates to 1894. The International Commercial Bank, a Swiss-based group, established a subsidiary in Gambia in 2005 and now has four branches there. Access Bank, based in Nigeria, has four branches in Gambia as well. Prime Bank, a subsidiary of the Lebanese Canadian Bank, opened a branch in in Gambia.


Many ethnic groups live in the country and preserve cultural traditions and language. The largest is the Mandinka tribe, followed by the Fula, Jola, and Serahule. Europeans and Lebanese number about 3,500.

63 percent of the population lives in rural settings. Younger people are moving into the cities to find work. Urbanization is occurring across the country.


Freedom of religions is guaranteed in the constitution. There is no state religion. 90 percent practice Islam. Most adhere to Sufi traditions. Maliki jurisprudence is largely followed.

Muslim 90%, Christian 8%, indigenous beliefs 2%. Some Buddhists and Baha’i followers exist due to immigration from South Asia. 2 percent follow indigenous religions.


Health spending was 1.8 percent of GDP in 2004. Private spending was 5 percent. In 2005, infant mortality was 97 per 1,000 live births. Live expectancy is 57.7 for males and 59.9 for females. There are 11 doctors for every 100,000 people in Gambia.

The World Health Organization estimates 78.3 percent of women and girls have suffered female genital mutilation.


Music and dancing are well-known Gambian cultural products. Without natural barriers, the country is home to most of the ethnic groups found in western Africa. European influences also exist due to the Gambia River being used extensively in the slave trade. Alex Haley popularized this history with the book Roots, set in Gambia.


While there is free and compulsory education, the lack of educational facilities and resources make implementing this difficult. 77.1 percent of those eligible were enrolled in school in 1995. Children were long prevented from attending school due to school fees. In 1998, the president ordered fees abolished for those in the first six years of school. 40 percent of school students are girls, but this is much lower in rural areas. 20 percent attend Koranic schools.


The government has been accused of restricting free speech. In 2002 a law created a commission with the power to arrest journalists. A later law permitted prison time for those guilty of libel and slander. Registration requirements have also been a burden. Journalists have been arrested allegedly for criticizing the government. Just after the 2004 law took effect, Deyda Hydara, a newspaper editor, was murdered under unexplained circumstances.


Football is popular with Gambian players impacting the football world despite the small population. Several players are on football clubs in Major League Soccer (MLS) in North America.

Patrick Mendy is a Gambian boxer who was the youngest fighter to take part in the Prizefighter series. He won the super middleweight competition.

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