the Gambia

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Gambia, The

(găm`bēə, gäm`–), officially Republic of The Gambia, republic (2015 est. pop. 1,978,000), 4,361 sq mi (11,295 sq km), W Africa. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and surrounded on the remaining three sides by Senegal. The capital is BanjulBanjul
, formerly Bathurst
, port city (1993 pop. 42,407), capital of The Gambia, situated on St. Mary's Island where the Gambia River enters the Atlantic Ocean. It is the only large urban area in The Gambia and is the country's economic and administrative center.
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Land and People

The smallest country on the continent of Africa, The Gambia comprises Saint Mary's Island (site of Banjul) and, on the adjacent mainland, a narrow strip never more than 30 mi (48 km) wide; this finger of land borders both banks of the Gambia River for c.200 mi (320 km) above its mouth. The river, which rises in Guinea and flows c.600 mi (970 km) to the Atlantic, is navigable throughout The Gambia and is the main transport artery. Along The Gambia's coast are fine sand beaches; inland is the swampy river valley, whose fertile alluvial soils support rice cultivation. Peanuts, the country's chief cash crop, and some grains are raised on higher land. The climate is tropical and fairly dry.

The Gambia's population consists primarily of Muslim ethnic groups; the Malinke (Mandinka) is the largest, followed by the Fulani (Fula), Wolof, Diola (Jola), and Soninke (Serahuli). Almost a tenth of the population is Christian. English is the official language, but a number of African dialects are widely spoken. During the sowing and reaping seasons migrants from Senegal and Guinea also come to work in the country.


Despite attempts at diversification, The Gambia's economy remains overwhelmingly dependent on the export of peanuts and their byproducts and the re-exporting of imported foreign goods to other African nations. About three quarters of the population is employed in agriculture. Rice, millet, sorghum, corn, and cassava are grown for subsistence, and cattle, sheep, and goats are raised. There is also a fishing industry. The main industrial activities center around the processing of agricultural products and some light manufacturing. Tourism, which suffered following the 1994 military takeover, rebounded in the late 1990s and is important to the economy. Besides peanut products, dried and smoked fish, cotton lint, palm kernels, and hides and skins are exported; foodstuffs, manufactures, fuel, machinery, and transportation equipment are imported. India, Great Britain, China, and Senegal are the country's leading trading partners. The Gambia is one of the world's poorest nations and relies heavily on foreign aid.


The Gambia is governed under the constitution of 1997. The president, who is both head of state and head of government, is popularly elected for a five-year term; there are no term limits. The unicameral legislature consists of a 53-seat National Assembly whose members also serve five-year terms; 48 members are elected and 5 are appointed by the president. Administratively, The Gambia is made up of five divisions and the capital city.


Portuguese explorers reaching the Gambia region in the mid-15th cent. reported a group of small Malinke and Wolof states that were tributary to the empire of MaliMali
, officially Republic of Mali, independent republic (2015 est. pop. 17,468,000), 478,764 sq mi (1,240,000 sq km), the largest country in W Africa. Mali is bordered on the north by Algeria, on the east and southeast by Niger, on the south by Burkina Faso and Côte
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. The English won trading rights from the Portuguese in 1588, but their hold was weak until the early 17th cent., when British merchant companies obtained trading charters and founded settlements along the Gambia River. In 1816 the British purchased Saint Mary's Island from a local chief and established Banjul (called Bathurst until 1973) as a base against the slave trade. The city remained a colonial backwater under the administration of Sierra Leone until 1843, when it became a separate crown colony. Between 1866 and 1888 it was again governed from Sierra Leone. As the French extended their rule over Senegal's interior, they sought control over Britain's Gambia River settlements but failed during negotiations to offer Britain acceptable territory in compensation. In 1889, The Gambia's boundaries were defined, and in 1894 the interior was declared a British protectorate. The whole of the country came under British rule in 1902 and that same year a system of government was initiated in which chiefs supervised by British colonial commissioners ruled a variety of localities. In 1906 slavery in the colony was ended.

The Gambia continued the system of local rule under British supervision until after World War II, when Britain began to encourage a greater measure of self-government and to train some Gambians for administrative positions. By the mid-1950s a legislative council had been formed, with members elected by the Gambian people, and a system had been initiated wherein appointed Gambian ministers worked along with British officials. The Gambia achieved full self-government in 1963 and independence in 1965 under Dawda Kairaba JawaraJawara, Sir Dawda Kairaba
, 1924–2019, president of Gambia (1970–94). A veterinarian, he became active in politics in 1960 and leader of the People's Progressive party.
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 and the People's Progressive party (PPP), made up of the predominant Malinke ethnic group. Following a referendum in 1970, The Gambia became a republic in the Commonwealth of Nations. In contrast to many other new African states, The Gambia preserved democracy and remarkable political stability in its early years of independence.

Since the mid-1970s large numbers of Gambians have migrated from rural to urban areas, resulting in high urban unemployment and overburdened services. The PPP demonstrated an interest in expanding the agricultural sector, but droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s prompted a serious decline in agricultural production and a rise in inflation. In 1978, The Gambia entered into an agreement with Senegal to develop the Gambia River and its basin. Improvements in infrastructure and a heightened popular interest by outsiders in the country (largely because of the popularity of Alex Haley's novel Roots, set partially in The Gambia) helped spur a threefold increase in tourism between 1978 and 1988.

The Gambia was shaken in 1981 by a coup attempt by radical leftists and paramilitary police; it was put down with the intervention of Senegalese troops. In 1982, The Gambia and Senegal formed a confederation, while maintaining individual sovereignty; by 1989, however, popular opposition and minor diplomatic problems led to the withdrawal of Senegalese troops and the dissolution of Senegambia. In July, 1994, Jawara was overthrown in a bloodless coup and Yahya Jammeh assumed power as chairman of the armed forces and head of state.

Jammeh survived an attempted countercoup in Nov., 1994, and won the presidential elections of Sept., 1996, from which the major opposition leaders effectively had been banned. Jammeh's rule subsequently became increasingly marked by the often brutal treatment of real and percieved opponents. Only in 2001, in advance of new presidential elections, was the ban on political activities by the opposition parties lifted, and in Oct., 2001, Jammeh was reelected. The 2002 parliamentary elections, in which Jammeh's party won nearly all the seats, were boycotted by the main opposition party.

There was a dispute with Senegal in Aug.–Oct., 2005, over increased ferry charges across the Gambia river, which led to a Senegalese ferry boycott and a blockade of overland transport through Gambia, which hurt Senegal S of Gambia but also affected Gambian merchants. Gambia subsequently reduced the charges. A coup plot led by the chief of defense staff was foiled in 2006; there was another attempted coup in 2009.

Jammeh was again reelected in Sept., 2006, but the opposition denounced and rejected the election for being marred by intimidation. In the subsequent parliamentary elections (Jan. 2007), Jammeh's party again won all but a handful of the seats. The presidential election in Nov., 2011, was again won by Jammeh, and again denounced by the opposition and criticized by foreign organizations. Opposition parties boycotted the Mar., 2012, parliamentary elections; the outcome mirrored that of 2007 elections. In Oct., 2013, the country withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations, accusing it of being a neocolonial institution. In Dec., 2014, a former state guards commander attempted to overthrow Jammeh while he was abroad.

Jammeh lost the presidential election of Dec., 2016, to businessman Adama Barrow, but ultimately challenged the result and refused, with the support of the military, to step down. The following month Jammeh declared a state of emergency, and the parliament extended his term by 90 days, but he was forced into exile by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which sent troops into The Gambia, and Barrow took office. In Apr., 2017, Barrow's United Democratic party won a majority in the parliamentary elections. Jammeh subsequently was accused of having stolen $50 million in state funds in the decade before he resigned. In June the mandate of the remaining ECOWAS forces was extended for a year, and in 2018 it was further extended. Gambia rejoined the Commonwealth in Feb., 2018.


See B. Rice, Enter Gambia (1968); H. B. Bachmann et al., Gambia: Basic Needs in The Gambia (1981); H. A. Gailey, Historical Dictionary of The Gambia (1987); D. P. Gamble, The Gambia (1988); F. Wilkins, Gambia (1988); M. F. McPherson and S. C. Radelet, ed., Economic Recovery in The Gambia (1996); D. R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (1997).

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