of the Gambia
The Gambia, a country on the western coast of Africa, fronting
the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal encloses the country on the other three sides.
Straddling the Gambia River, the country extends eastward for about 320
km (200 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean. At its widest, this narrow country
measures only about 50 km (30 mi) across.
The Gambia, also called Gambia, is the smallest country on the African
mainland. Among African countries, only the Seychelles, a group of
islands off the eastern coast, cover a smaller area. The port city
is the capital of The Gambia, but Serrekunda is the largest city.
The Gambia is a largely agricultural country, and its people are
poor. Peanuts, the main crop, are grown largely for export. Tourism
helps the economy. Beaches along the Atlantic coast draw visitors
to The Gambia,
as does the rich bird life along the Gambia River.
The Gambia became a British colony during the 1800s. It gained its
independence in 1965. Following independence, The Gambia was regarded
as a stable democracy until a bloodless military coup in 1994 removed
its president. Yahya Jammeh, the military leader who became president
after the coup, was subsequently reelected.
Land and Resources
The Gambia has an area of 11,295 sq km (4,361 sq mi), less than twice
the area of the state of Delaware. It occupies both sides of the
lower Gambia River, which is the dominating natural feature of the
country. The river cuts a winding course through a low plateau, which
slopes from a maximum elevation of 50 m (160 ft) down to sea level.
The river narrows to 4 km (2.5 mi) at Banjul and then broadens, providing
an excellent harbor.
The river banks are low and fringed with mangroves for the first
130 km (80 mi) from the coast. Behind the mangroves are swamps
that are suitable
in many places for rice cultivation. The slightly elevated and rather
flat land that slopes up from the river valley has a light, sandy soil
on which the villages are built and where peanuts and grain crops such
as millet and sorghum are grown.
The Gambia has a tropical climate with well-defined rainy and dry seasons.
The rainy season lasts from June to October. Agricultural production
must be concentrated during this season. Rainfall varies considerably
from year to year, averaging about 1,020 mm (about 40 in). But it
ranges from less than 750 mm (30 in) to more than 1,500 mm (60 in).
The dry season extends from November to May. During the months of
March, April, and May, the harmattan, a hot, dry, dusty wind,
from the Sahara, bringing temperatures that exceed 38°C (100°F)
to the interior of the country. Temperatures along the coast range from
18°C (65°F) in winter to 32°C (90°F) in summer.
The main natural resource of The Gambia is the Gambia River, one of Africa’s
best navigable waterways. Small ocean-going vessels can go upstream for
about 200 km (125 mi) from the coast, and smaller craft can continue
for another 200 km. The country’s soil is mostly poor and sandy,
except in the swamps along the rivers. However, this sandy soil is ideally
suited for the cultivation of peanuts, upon which the economy depends.
Fish are increasing in economic importance. Seismic surveys have indicated
the possibility that petroleum and natural gas exist offshore.
The natural vegetation of the upland areas consists of wooded, but open,
savanna. However, intensive clearing for agriculture has destroyed most
of the original tree cover. The government has set aside some areas as
forest parks and has planted trees in other areas. Mangroves grow in
abundance along the Gambia River, and oil palms have been planted on
Wild animal life has become scarce in The Gambia, but bird life is exceptionally
rich, especially in the large mangroves near the rivers. The animals
most commonly seen include monkeys, baboons, wild boar, and several species
of antelope. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles can be seen in the central
and upper zones of the Gambia River. Lions and hyenas live in the Abuko
Nature Reserve, 24 km (15 mi) from Banjul.
The Gambia has lost 91 percent of its original forest habitat, which
has been cleared for agriculture and fuel wood. As a result, many of
the big-game animals are no longer found wild in the country, although
parks and nature reserves have been established, including Baboon Island,
also known as The River Gambia National Park. With government incentives
encouraging growth in the number of fishing companies, overfishing has
emerged as a problem.
Saltwater has intruded farther upriver, causing agricultural lands
to become saline, and desertification has increased. Water-borne
are prevalent along the river and its estuaries, where large numbers
of people live.
A variety of ethnic groups live side by side in The Gambia while
preserving individual languages and traditions. The main ethnic groups
the Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinke), Fula, and Wolof.
The Mandinka, the largest ethnic group, make up more than 40 percent
of the country’s inhabitants. The Fula (Fulani), about 18
percent of Gambians, predominate in the eastern part of the country.
The Wolof, about 16 percent of the people, live mainly in Banjul
and the western region. Smaller groups include the Jola, who live
in the western region, and the Serahuli, whose rulers introduced
Islam into the region in the 12th century. There is also a small
Creole community, the Aku, who are descended from liberated slaves
and from European traders who married African women. Most of The
Gambia’s people live in rural areas. In 2003, 26 percent
of the population lived in urban areas.
The population of The Gambia (2006 estimate) is 1,641,564, making it
one of the least populous countries of Africa. Still, the country has
a fairly high overall population density of 164 persons per sq km (425
per sq mi), and the population is increasing at a rate of 2.8 percent
a year. Banjul, formerly called Bathurst, is the capital and only seaport.
The largest city is Serrekunda, a transportation hub and commercial center.
The great majority of the people of The Gambia are Muslims. Most of the
rest are Christians, and a small percentage follow traditional African
religions. English is the official language, but each ethnic group has
its own language.
Primary education in The Gambia is free but not compulsory. In the 2000
school year 156,800 children were enrolled in primary school (85
percent of this age group), while 56,200 were enrolled in a secondary
school (34 percent of secondary school-aged children). The country’s
institutions of higher education include The Gambia College, in Bríkama,
and several technical and training schools.
The Gambia’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture. Peanuts
are the main crop and a major export. Sporadic drought conditions cause
large fluctuations in the peanut harvest. The gross domestic product
(GDP) in 2002 was $357 million, or $260 per person. (GDP is a measure
of the value of all goods and services a country produces.) The Gambia’s
exports do not pay for its imports.
Some 82 percent of the working population of The Gambia is engaged in
agriculture. Rice and millet, as well as cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry,
are raised for local consumption. Peanuts are grown primarily for export;
the crop amounted to 136,000 metric tons in 2005. The sale of peanuts
and peanut products accounts for about two-thirds of total yearly domestic
exports by value. The government has made efforts to diversify agricultural
production by encouraging the planting of oil palms, citrus trees, cotton,
and other plants.
The coastal villages of The Gambia engage in fishing. In 2001 the
fish catch was 34,527 metric tons, mostly from marine waters.
Shad was by
far the most common catch in Atlantic waters. The Gambia exports fish
and fish products.
Currency, and Trade
Manufacturing in The Gambia is limited mainly to the processing of agricultural
products and to the building of fishing boats. Factories press peanuts
for their oil. Other manufactured goods include beverages, clothing,
footwear, and handicrafts. Much of the fish catch is salted, dried, or
smoked at seaside facilities. Local crafts include leatherwork, cloth
dyeing, and the silverwork and goldwork for which the Wolof are noted.
The country’s unit of currency, adopted in 1971, is the dalasi
(30.03 dalasi equal U.S.$1; 2004 average), consisting of 100 butut. Currency
is issued by the Central Bank of The Gambia (founded in 1971).
The cost of The Gambia’s yearly imports is usually much more than
its export earnings; in 2003 imports totaled $163 million and exports
were valued at $5 million. The main trading partners for exports were
Japan, Belgium and Luxembourg, Senegal, Guinea, France, and the United
States; principal partners for imports were the China, Côte d’Ivoire,
Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Germany, Senegal, Thailand, and the United
States. The Gambia’s tourist industry is a growing source of foreign
The Gambia River is navigable for about 200 km (about 125 mi) from the
Atlantic Ocean by small oceangoing vessels. There are 3,742 km (2,325
mi) of roads; the construction of a major road south of the river reduced
the importance of the river as a major artery of transportation. The
country has no railroads. An international airport at Yundum, near Banjul,
was upgraded with a new terminal in 1996. It has been expanded and outfitted
by the U.S. space agency NASA to serve as an emergency landing site for
the space shuttle.
The government operates the country’s only television stations.
Radio broadcasters include government-operated and commercial stations.
There is one daily newspaper, The Daily Observer, and several weeklies.
The government licenses private radio stations and newspapers, and all
journalists not working for state-run media must register with the National
Media Commission. They work under severe restrictions.
Tourists from Europe began to visit The Gambia in the 1960s, and by the
mid-1970's tourism had become an important sector of the economy. British
travelers make up about two-thirds of the tourist arrivals. Foreign
visitors come to The Gambia for the winter sunshine and to enjoy the
beaches, bird life, excursions on the Gambia River, and the traditions
of the Gambian people. Most tourists arrive during the months between
November and February and stay near Banjul and the Atlantic beaches.
Few tourists visit The Gambia during the hot, rainy season between
May and September, and the hotels and restaurants mostly close during
Until the military took over The Gambia’s government in a bloodless
coup in 1994, the country was governed by a 1970 constitution. A new
constitution was approved by public referendum in 1996 during the presidency
of military leader Yahya Jammeh. It took effect in 1997. Under this constitution
a popularly elected president serves as head of state for a five-year
term. The president may serve an unlimited number of terms. The country’s
legislative body is the unicameral National Assembly. Forty-eight of
the legislature’s 53 members are popularly elected to five-year
terms; the other 5 are appointed by the president.
The judicial system consists of a supreme court with unlimited jurisdiction,
an appeal court, and subordinate magistrate and divisional courts.
Civil actions between Muslim citizens are handled by special
that follow Islamic Sharia law. Minor civil and criminal cases are
tried in group tribunals.
circles, tools, and pottery found near Banjul indicate early occupation
of the area. Evidence of iron work dates from the 8th century AD. Numerous
ethnic groups entered The Gambia after the 13th century. Chief among
these were the Mandinka, Wolof, and Fulani peoples. Early states paid
tribute to the Mali Empire; the different groups later created small
kingdoms in the valley of the Gambia River.
European Arrival and Rule
In 1455 Portuguese explorers entered the region and soon established
trading stations along the river. These were supplanted in the 17th
century by companies from England and France that had royal charters.
and French were primarily interested in the slave trade and possible
sources of gold, and they struggled for control of the river. Under
the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783, the French abandoned their claims
the area to the British in exchange for land in Senegal.
After the prohibition of slave trading throughout the British Empire
in 1807, the British tried to control the traffic in the area by
establishing a trading station at the mouth of the Gambia River.
This effort led
them to purchase Banjul Island from the ruler of a local kingdom
The station grew into the town of Bathurst (now Banjul). Peanut trade
from the settlement began by 1829.
Ongoing warfare between the Soninke and followers of Islam called
Marabouts hampered British expansion into the upper river areas
until the European
race for African territory began in the late 19th century. To protect
its position, Britain then claimed the Gambia River. In an 1889
agreement with France, The Gambia’s present boundaries were established.
The area became a British protectorate in 1894. In the following years,
British administrators governed the population largely through local
rulers, and Britain encouraged economic self-sufficiency.
War II (1939-1945) Britain belatedly began to develop The Gambia and
to train some Africans for administrative posts.
Political parties were formed and in 1960 nationwide elections
were held for
members of the territory’s legislative council. In the 1962 election the
People’s Progressive Party (PPP) gained a substantial majority,
and its leader, Dawda Jawara, became the first prime minister.
The Gambia became independent on February 18, 1965, with Jawara
as prime minister. In a 1970 national referendum Gambians voted
and Jawara was elected president. He and his PPP won the 1972
and 1977 elections. In 1981 a coup attempt was crushed while
the United Kingdom. The coup failed because troops from Senegal
intervened under a mutual defense pact, but about 1,000 people
died in the conflict.
A consequence of Senegal’s aid in putting down the coup was the
creation in 1982 of a confederation with Senegal, Senegambia, with President
Abdou Diouf of Senegal as president and Jawara as vice president. The
confederation resulted in closer economic cooperation, but never supplanted
the political systems of the two nations and never won the full approval
of Gambians. Jawara retained the presidency of The Gambia in the elections
of 1982 and 1987, and the confederation with Senegal collapsed in 1989.
Despite accusations of corruption and misrule, Jawara was reelected as
president of The Gambia in 1992.
The Gambia began to develop its own armed forces for the
first time after the 1981 coup attempt, and in the early
force grew impatient with their meager pay and with government
corruption. A bloodless coup on July 22, 1994, forced Jawara
into exile and led
to the proclamation of Lieutenant (later Colonel) Yahya
Jammeh as president. European countries and the United States
and pressed the military regime to restore democracy. For
two years the
government banned political activity and prosecuted cases
of official corruption.
Under international pressure to hold democratic elections,
Jammeh oversaw the promulgation of a new constitution
victory in September 1996 presidential elections through
candidate age limits and financial restrictions on political
the Provisional Ruling Council, retired from the army,
declared himself a candidate for president, and restored
prohibiting three major political parties (including
the PPP) from participating
in the elections. A number of countries that had provided
aid to The Gambia cut off their funds after the 1994
Jammeh won the 1996 elections, which were widely criticized
for their unfairness. Jammeh was reelected president
in October 2001.
time international observers called the elections largely
free and fair.
As a result, the United States lifted sanctions it
had imposed on The Gambia
following the coup by Jammeh. The return to democratic
elections allowed The Gambia to again attract foreign
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