Recent visitors to The Gambia are likely to be struck by the huge numbers of smartly dressed schoolgirls chatting away happily on their way to or from school. They are beneficiaries of an ambitious government programme which provides free education for girls and is aimed at achieving universal primary enrolment by 2015.
The initiative is identified with the country’s youthful leader, President Yahya Jammeh, who turned 40 in May 2005, and it has not gone down well with some sections of the population that still believe women should play a subservient role. Nevertheless, the programme has been a roaring success. Whereas 9 out of 10 girls in urban areas attend school, the figure for the rural areas has been quite low. Now girls in the rural areas, who were expecting to be married off at an early age, are receiving education that will help to fill the skills gap in the country and will eventually enable them to serve in crucial sectors such as health. Jammeh says he wants to give every citizen the chance to prove themselves.
This revolution came through the barrel of a gun. On 22 July 1994 Captain Jammeh and his army colleagues overthrew the regime of the avuncular Sir Dawda Jawara, a British-trained veterinary surgeon, whose performance after 29 years in power was, to say the least, abysmal.
Caroline Penn / Panos Pictures
The golf-loving Sir Dawda led The Gambia to independence from Britain on 18 February 1965 – three months before Jammeh was born. But he failed to provide social services for Gambians. No new schools or hospitals were built; road construction was non-existent; water and electricity supply was restricted; and the general standard of living was quite low.
Jammeh changed all this by adopting an approach to development founded on social justice principles. In the 11-year period that the Jammeh Government has been in power it has: established a university, which turned out its first graduates in 2004; built three new hospitals staffed by Cuban doctors; constructed over 40 secondary schools, up from only 12 in 1994; and increased life expectancy while reducing infant mortality.
In delivering greater social justice to Gambians, Jammeh expects them also to pull up their socks and take advantage of the new opportunities. It is not unusual for him to take a swipe at ‘lazy Gambian men’ who let women do all the hard work on the farms.
Jammeh’s military regime did not have an easy ride. It was placed under economic sanctions by the Commonwealth, whose leaders were more sympathetic to Sir Dawda. But he weathered the storm, and in 1996, Jammeh, who appeals more to the younger generation of Gambians, won a presidential election.
Of course, he was aided by a ban on some political parties and a boycott by the opposition. However, the opposition parties bounced back in the 2001 election, which was a close-run race. As is the case in so many African countries, the disparate opposition parties only managed to split the vote and allowed Jammeh to win by a hair’s breadth. Now the opposition have formed an alliance, which has been registered by the Independent Election Commission, and plans to put up a single candidate in the October 2006 presidential election.
The new Gambia that Jammeh wants to chart is one that does not dwell too much on the past. Indeed, it is quite obvious that the old guard – those from the pre-independence days – are finding it difficult to relate to the young generation of Gambians that is becoming increasingly global in orientation – thanks to a vibrant tourism industry and the influence of the African-American music videos that are so popular in the country.
|Leader||President Yahya Jammeh.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $310 (Senegal $550, Britain $28,350).|
|Main exports||groundnuts (85%) and fish. Agriculture employs 70% of the workforce, with 60% of the cultivated land given over to groundnuts – The Gambia is the second-largest producer of groundnuts in the world after Senegal. Not enough food – rice, maize, millet, sorghum and cassava – is produced to meet the country’s needs. The US has approved the country for tariff preferences under the African Growth and Opportunities Act conditional on its continued progress towards a market economy, the rule of law and free trade.|
|People||1.5 million. People per square kilometre: 133 (UK 245).|
|Health||Infant mortality rate 90 per 1,000 live births, down from 138 in the last decade (Senegal 78, Britain 6). HIV prevalence rate: 1.2%.|
|Environment||Large areas of forest have disappeared and desertification affects some areas. The capital Banjul is only one metre above sealevel and would thus be threatened by global warming.|
|Culture||Mandingo 40%, Futa 14%, Wolof 13%, 7% Diula, other 26%. There are smaller groups such as Serahuilis and Akus deeper inland.|
|Language||English (official). The most widespread local languages are Mandingo, Fulani and Wolof.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Wealth is beginning to be evenly spread now that more and more Gambians are going into business and creating job opportunities away from the seasonal tourist industry.|
|Literacy||At 37%, the adult literacy rate is still very low but the Government’s commitment to education (spending 22 per cent of its budget on this) should now ensure this rises. The school drop-out rate has fallen sharply.|
|Life expectancy||54 years (Senegal 53, Britain 78). Life expectancy has increased by 10 years in the past decade because of immense improvements in the healthcare system.|
|Freedom||President Jammeh occasionally tries to exercise rigid control but opposition political parties are ensuring that the democratic process is not derailed. The private press is being ostracized by the Government.|
|Position of women||The Government is providing education and social programmes to enhance women’s position but bizarrely refuses to campaign against female genital mutilation, which affects 80% of girls.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is illegal and imprisonable for 14 years. Gambian society, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, tends to frown on non-conformist sexual relationships.|
|New Internationalist assessment||The Government has attempted to browbeat the opposition parties into submission through the courts but they keep bouncing back. Democracy does not come easy to President Yahya Jammeh – and both sides are now gearing up for the crucial presidential election in October 2006, which should prove to be a real contest – but he should feel more secure about his position given the genuine social progress made since 1994.|