When The Gambia is written about in the Western press it is often presented as a sunshine-filled tourist haven populated by smiling happy locals – a bit like a cheap beach party that is a hop, skip and a flight from colder climes.
On the Atlantic coast, near the airport, next to the tourist hotels with their well-manicured gardens, there are tarmac roads that are usually well lit. There is normally electricity, clean water and decent sanitation.
Leaving the tourist areas and entering rural Gambia, however, the roads are so bad that vehicles have to crawl around the potholes and it can take half a day to travel 100 kilometres. The electricity, clean water and sanitation facilities disappear. Scarecrows are made from ripped plastic bags, old rice sacks or dead monkeys. Platforms made of sticks stand in the middle of fields to sit on or under while children, often accompanied by dogs, keep an eye out for marauding monkeys.
The Gambia, the smallest and most densely populated country on the African mainland, has virtually no natural resources – except for peanuts – and relies mostly on tourism, foreign aid and monies sent home by expatriates.
Life in rural Gambia is particularly difficult for women – child marriage and female genital mutilation are still common, while women do 70 per cent of the agricultural work. At many levels it is the women who, economically and nutritionally, hold the country together.
The country gained its independence from Britain in 1965 and was dominated for three decades by its first leader, Dawda Jawara. It formally united with French-speaking Senegal, which surrounds it, during the 1980s after a failed coup attempt but reasserted its independent status in 1989. The current president, Yahya Jammeh, a former army lieutenant, came to power in a 1994 coup. He has since been elected and re-elected but effectively rules the country with an iron fist.
His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh – to give him the full title he insists upon – is an eccentric figure. He has claimed that he can personally cure hypertension, infertility, asthma, strokes, sickle-cell anaemia, diabetes and AIDS, amongst other diseases. He claims to have received letters from US President Obama describing him as an inspirational leader and thanking him for his exemplary dedication, determination and perseverance for the development of The Gambia as well as the advancement of humanity at large – a claim denied by the Americans.
In March 2009, a literal witch-hunt sponsored by the state led to approximately 1,000 people being snatched from their villages and taken to secret detention centres. Amnesty International reported that, after being kidnapped, they were forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions and tortured to make them confess to witchcraft. The liquid they were forced to drink led to at least six deaths from kidney failure.
Jammeh has shut down newspapers, imprisoned journalists and stamped down on freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says there is ‘absolute intolerance of any form of criticism’ in The Gambia, with death threats, surveillance and arbitrary night-time arrests the daily lot of journalists ‘who do not sing the government’s praises’. Political arrests are also regular occurrences, with several cases of individuals who have ‘disappeared’, died in custody or died shortly after release. According to Amnesty International, once people are in custody, they risk a range of human rights violations, including unlawful detention, torture, unfair trials and extrajudicial killings.
Visitors to The Gambia’s beaches should look well beneath the surface – and the international community should pay more attention to the country’s increasingly worrying human rights record.
|Leader||President Yahya Jammeh|
|Economy||GNI per capita $440 (Senegal $1,040, UK $41,520). Annual growth levels are running at 5-6% but almost all investment is concentrated in the coastal region that serves Western tourists and infrastructure (and development) in other areas is chronically neglected. The country is heavily dependent on aid, which accounts for 14% of GNI, though it receives even more in remittances from people working overseas.|
|Main exports||groundnuts (around 50%), fish, cotton lint, palm kernels.|
|People||1.7 million. Annual population growth rate 3.4%. People per square kilometre 151 (UK 253).|
|Health||Infant mortality 78 per 1,000 live births (Senegal 51, UK 5). HIV prevalence rate 2%. 28% of under-fives suffer from stunting. Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 49 (UK 1 in 4,700). The healthcare system has improved over the last two decades, especially in the control of malaria.|
|Environment||CO2 emissions per capita 0.2 tonnes (US 19.9). Deforestation is a problem, though driven more by slash-and-burn agriculture than by logging. At least six species are threatened by habitat destruction, including the red colobus monkey, West African dwarf crocodile and the West African manatee.|
|Culture||Mandingo 40%, Fula 14%, Wolof 13%, Diula 7%, with smaller groups inland.|
|Religion||Around 95% of Gambians are Muslim, with small minorities practising Christianity and traditional religions. The constitution guarantees freedom to all to practise the religion of their choice.|
|Language||English (official) but each people speaks its own language first, with Mandingo, Fulani and Wolof most common.|
|Human Development Index||0.390 – 151st of 169 (Senegal 0.411, UK 0.849).|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||The poorest two-fifths of the population have 13% of income while the highest fifth has 53%.|
|Literacy||45%. Stubbornly low – and women are lagging well behind on this score.|
|Life expectancy||56 years (Senegal 56, UK 80).|
|Freedom||The press is under siege and journalists operate in fear of their lives (see main piece).|
|Position of women||One of Jammeh’s more praiseworthy initiatives has been his encouragement of girls’ education, which has resulted in more girls than boys attending primary school. But he has not campaigned against the very common practices of female genital mutilation and forced marriage of young girls.|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is already illegal and punishable by 14 years but Jammeh has promised ‘stricter laws than Iran’ on homosexuality and said he would ‘cut off the head’ of any gay person found in The Gambia.|
|New Internationalist assessment||Jammeh is becoming increasingly tyrannical, erratic and intolerant, and has made the most of a fragmented and lacklustre opposition. A presidential election is due in November and Jammeh said recently: ‘Elections will not make me lose power nor will military coups... It is only the Almighty Allah... who can make this possible. So anybody who thinks that the opposition are going to win the forthcoming elections is daydreaming.’ He added ominously: ‘From now on, my government will only inject development to those areas that support me.’|
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