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.
|Human Development Index|
|Last profiled||March 1993|
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