Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Gambia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Gambia, May 2008, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: May 2008


The Republic of Gambia is situated in the far west of the African continent, bordered by Senegal on three sides. The country extends roughly 10 kilometres on each bank of the Gambia River, which flows to the Atlantic Ocean. Until the claim of discovery of offshore oil in 2004, The Gambia had few natural resources. The agricultural country is an exporter of peanuts, and its beaches and river attract foreign tourists.


Before European arrival in the fifteenth century, the banks of the Gambia River had been passed from the Ghana Empire to the Songhai Empire, and finally to the Mali Empire. Over three centuries Europeans accelerated the slave trade previously driven by Arab demand, and decimated West African populations and social structures. Britain and France hotly contested the Gambia River, and defined the present borders of the territory in 1889 which were subsequently demarcated on the ground. The Gambia became a British protectorate in 1894, governed through policies of indirect rule.

The Gambia became an independent state within the Commonwealth in 1965 and a republic in 1970. Dawda Jawara, who served as prime minister from 1962 to 1970 won presidential elections, and followed democratic principles to an extent that was remarkable for the region. In 1981 an attempted leftist military coup supported by Libya killed hundreds, but was suppressed with the assistance of Senegal. The following year, The Gambia entered into a confederation with Senegal called the Senegambian Confederation, but integration faltered and Gambia withdrew from the arrangement in 1989.


Main languages: English (official), Mandinka (Malinké) and other indigenous languages

Main religions: Islam, Christianity

Minority groups include Fula (Fulani, Fulbe, Peul) 288,000 (18%), Wolof 256,000 (16%), Jola (Diola) 160,000 (10%), Serahuli 144,000 (9%) and Aku 16,000-48,000.

[Note: All data comes from the 2006 CIA World Factbook, and numbers are based on its total population estimate of 1.6 million.]

The peoples of Gambia comprise two major linguistic groups. Dominant Mandinka agriculturalists, who make up 44 per cent of the population, and traders who speak West Atlantic languages. Speakers of Manding include the pastoralist Fula as well as Wolof and Jola cultivators, albeit as a second language. Although each people has its own language, Mandinka serves as a lingua franca, with Wolof often performing that role in Banjul. English is the official language.

The boundaries of Gambia are artificial; they result only from a long history of conflict among European colonial powers which almost ended with its disappearance. These boundaries prevent Gambia from having free access to its hinterland and separate the Gambian Wolof, Jola, Mandinka, and Fula people from their kin in Senegal. However, they have also created ample opportunities for contraband.

A pastoral people from the Upper Senegal River region, the Fula speak a variant of the Niger-Kordofanian language family. Fula are also known as Fulani, Fulbe and Peul. They were the dominant group in the ancient kingdom of Tekrur until its overthrow in the eleventh century. Fula then created a series of smaller states from the western segment of that kingdom where they continued to rule until the Tukolor majority seized power and established a strict Muslim rule. Between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries a large number of Fula were involved in a series of long and complicated migrations. They were present in large numbers in the Upper Gambia region in the nineteenth century and took part in several rebellions against Mandinka overlords.

Wolof in Gambia mainly inhabit upper and lower Saloum districts, Banjul, and the northern sections of Niani, Sami, Niumi and Jokadu. The Wolof language is part of the northern subgroup of the Niger-Kordofanian family and is a commercial language spoken beyond the boundaries of Senegal and Gambia. Wolof social organization is extremely complex based upon a tripartite division of society into freeborn, low-caste people and slaves. Although many contemporary Wolof are involved in trading and urban life, the majority are agriculturists and live in villages. Historically Wolof in the area of the Gambia Protectorate had not established strong central polities before the Soninke-Marabout wars of the nineteenth century and were politically subordinate to Mandinka or Serer overlords.

A majority of Jola reside in the Foni areas south of Bintang Bolon. While Jola comprise only 10 per cent of Gambia's population, they are very close to the more numerous Diola (as Jola are called in Senegal) of Senegal's Casamance region. Their political and social organization has traditionally been village-oriented and sub-group identities are very pronounced. It is likely that Jola are among the longest-residing people in the Gambia region. Casamance, where the Senegalese Diola live today, was historically part of the Gamba River complex before being arbitrarily separated from Gambia in 1889. It was reported in the eighteenth century that although Jola paid tribute to Mandinka, they had not been completely subjugated and continued to exercise great freedom.

Serahuli form the largest group in the extreme Upper River region of Gambia, inhabiting part of the area which once was the ancient kingdom of Wuli. They are a mixture of Mandinka, Berber and Fula. Primarily farmers, they are hampered by the poor soil in the area. Until the end of the 1950s Serahuli experienced seasonal shortfalls in food.

Aku live in and around Banjul. They are predominantly Christian and are employed in business and the professions. Aku are the descendants of Africans (mainly Yoruba) in transit as slaves to the Americas who were liberated, mostly by warships or the British West Africa Patrol. They were called 'recaptives' because they were taken twice. In the 1820s and 1830s they found their way from Freetown to the Gambia and became a nucleus of a Westernized population in Banjul. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Aku came to exercise an influence in Gambia disproportionate to their number. Adopting Western lifestyles, they accepted Christianity and educated their children in Sierra Leone and the UK. Aku became successful traders, entered the civil service and in the period between 1945 and independence came to dominate many important government positions in Gambia.


Mandinka dominated the People's Progressive Party and Gambian electoral politics from the election prior to independence. However, Africa's oldest democracy came to an abrupt end in 1994, when Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, a protégé of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, led a group of military officers in a successful coup. The Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) complained that Jawara was guilty of nepotism and corruption.

Jammeh, from the Jola people, served as chairman of the junta between 1994-1996. He banned all political activity and drastically curtailed media freedom. In 1996 he pushed through a constitution to set the stage for sham elections that gave him the veneer of civilian rule. Jammeh received financial support from Nigeria, Saudia Arabia and Kuwait, and for a brief time publicly mooted the idea of introducing sharia law. From the outset Jammeh established close relationships with Gaddafi, Liberian warlord/president Charles Taylor and Sierra Leonean warlord Foday Sankoh. The Gambia has no diamond resources, but during the war in Sierra Leone became a significant exporter of diamonds from areas controlled by the Revolutionary United Front. Gambian diamond exports just to Belgium amounted to $78 million in 1998 alone. Senegal viewed Jammeh with suspicion due to his sympathy for Diola separatists in Senegal's Casamance region.

Many observers regarded balloting in 2001 as largely free and fair, despite allegations that Jammeh had provided voter cards to Diola from Casamance to bolster his vote. Several opposition supporters, human rights activists and journalists were arrested immediately after the election. Draconian media laws passed in 2004, and a leading journalist who had fought the measures was shot to death two days later.

Jammeh announced in 2004 that oil had been discovered offshore in The Gambia's territorial waters, but drilling has not yet produced concrete results. For now the Gambian economy remains dependant on agriculture, tourism, contraband, and remittances from Gambians abroad.


None listed.


Minority based and advocacy organisations

African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
Tel: +220-4462-341, 4462-342

African Commission on Human Rights and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR)
Tel: +220-4392-962, 4372-070, 4377-721

Amnesty International
Tel: +220-4494-140

Sources and further reading

Bowman, J., Ominous Transition: Commerce and Colonial Expansion in the Senegambia and Guinea, 1857-1919, Aldershot, Avebury, 1996.

Gailey, H.A., Historical Dictionary of the Gambia, Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow Press, 1987.

Hughes, A and Perfect, D., A Political History of the Gambia, Rochester, Rochester University Press, 2006.

Reporters Without Borders, Deyda Hydara: The Death of a Journalist under Surveillance, May 2005.

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