Finbarr O'Reilly / REUTERS At a polling station in Banjul, Gambia, September 2006.

Gambia's Opposition Unites

The Stakes of December's Election

On December 1, Gambians will vote in their country’s most consequential election since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. For the first time, a unified political coalition will challenge Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s longtime dictator, only months after the most vigorous protest movement in the country’s recent history.

The upcoming election could usher in a new period in Gambia’s political development, which so far has been marked by two distinct phases. The first period began in 1965 with Gambian independence and ended in 1994 with the overthrow of Dawda Jawara, the country’s first popularly elected president. Over those three decades, Gambia’s economy performed relatively well compared to its counterparts in West Africa, ranking third overall in GDP per capita in 1994; the country also became a popular tourist destination, earning the moniker the “Smiling Coast of Africa.” Jawara was widely applauded for advancing human rights and for his bold attempts to improve Gambia’s economy. Thanks in part to his government’s record, in 1989, the newly created African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) chose to establish its secretariat in Banjul, Gambia’s capital. 

In the early 1990s, Jawara began to face growing internal criticism and calls for change—in particular, for failing to curb corruption and provide basic services. Throughout the early 1990s, civil society groups, university students, and working Gambians took to the streets to express their discontent. Yet Gambia was hardly an outlier in a region that was experiencing a host of post-colonial troubles. 

Gambia’s situation took a dramatic turn for the worse in July 1994, when Jammeh, then a 29-year-old junior military officer, seized power in a bloodless coup. (He had recently returned from a military training course in the United States.) Under Jammeh’s rule, which marks the second period in Gambia’s independent political history, the country has earned a reputation as a human rights pariah due to the rampant killings, disappearances, and torture of journalists, activists, and members of the fourth-largest group of migrant and refugee arrivals to Italy, despite the fact that Gambia has one of the smallest populations in Africa. Perhaps in an attempt to shield himself and his regime from potential prosecution for their myriad crimes, Jammeh recently withdrew Gambia from the International Criminal Court. (The chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is a Gambian citizen and was once a legal adviser to Jammeh.) As for the ACHPR, African observers have called for its relocation to a country with a better human rights record.

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