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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Gambia

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Gambia, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 26 November 2015]
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.



On July 22, the Gambia National Army (GNA) deposed by coup d'etat the democratically elected Government and dismissed the democratically elected Parliament. The four GNA lieutenants who planned and led the coup proclaimed themselves the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) under the chairmanship of Lt. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, who also became Head of State.

The GNA and the police report to the Ministers of Defense and Interior. The regime integrated the police's tactical support group (former gendarmerie) into the GNA. It reassigned, fired, summarily retired, or detained nearly all senior security officials after it took power and arrested and detained senior government officials and members of the press. It held detainees incommunicado and did not acknowledge their detentions.

The Gambia's population of just over 1 million consists largely of subsistence farmers growing rice, millet, maize, and groundnuts (peanuts), the country's primary export crop. The private sector, led by reexporting, fisheries, horticulture, and tourism, had begun to flourish, but has been in steep decline since the July 22 coup.

The elected Government of Sir Dawda Jawara respected and protected human rights. The coup leaders committed widespread and repeated human rights abuses. The AFPRC detained armed forces and police personnel without charge; abolished political parties, political activities, and political publications; intimidated the press; dissolved local governments; and revoked rights to travel and transfer funds or assets for senior officials of the Jawara Government. It declared its decrees exempt from legal challenge, and, as noted above, ordered the arbitrary arrest, firing, and retirement of government officials and civil service employees loyal to the elected Government.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

An undetermined number of GNA soldiers died during and following an attempted countercoup on November 11. An AFPRC spokesman announced an estimated 16 total deaths during the attempt, but specifically named as dead only the 3 purported ringleaders. While it was widely rumored that authorities summarily executed many dissident soldiers, the spokesman denied that executions had been carried out. However, the military leadership did not provide a full accounting of casualties or information on the disposition of remains. In another incident in October, a soldier killed an apparent curfew violator under circumstances that remain unclear. The soldier believed involved was detained but remains unidentified.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

While the AFPRC did not suspend that part of the Constitution that prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, it ignored these provisions in regard to former ministers and military and police detainees.

Credible reporting indicates that three military and police detainees were beaten unconscious at Mile 2 Prison in the presence of four members of the AFPRC in early September.

The regime held former ministers of the Jawara Government under house arrest for 2 months after the coup, subjected them to lengthy interrogation, and then confined them at Mile 2 Prison or the National Intelligence Agency (the former National Security Service) headquarters for up to several days. It released former ministers from house arrest in September, but rearrested and detained 10 former ministers in early November. Police physically mistreated one former minister after arresting him.

Prison conditions were austere but improving before the July 22 coup. While no deaths in prison were reported during the year, no other information was available on postcoup conditions for the general prison populations at Mile 2 Prison and two other confinement facilities. The AFPRC assigned military guards to augment the corrections staff at Mile 2 Prison following the coup, and there were credible reports of malnourishment, illness, and beatings of military and security detainees. Women are not targeted for abuse while in custody.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was able to visit 32 detainees in two places of detention. Most of the detainees are soldiers and police arrested immediately after the July 22 coup. Others are members of the military seized after the abortive putsch of November 11.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Before the July coup, there were well-developed constitutional and legal procedures governing arrest, detention, and trial. After the coup, the regime frequently and arbitrarily arrested military and police personnel, civil servants, parastatal staff, and media representatives. An AFPRC decree authorizes detention of military or police officers for 6 months without charge. The same decree permits indefinite detention after review by a special tribunal. Following the coup, the authorities acknowledged that they held approximately 30 military and police detainees, although the total number is believed to be higher. They released 16 detainees in November, but did not release or bring to trial the remaining military and police detainees. The regime subjected prominent civilians in and out of government to lengthy surprise interrogations in uncomfortable circumstances, often lasting overnight, and detained some officials for extended periods.

The authorities generally did not permit families, reporters, or other private citizens to visit military and police detainees. They did occasionally permit exceptional visits by detainees' wives after direct petitions to the vice chairman of the AFPRC. In the aftermath of the November 11 counter-coup attempt, the AFPRC ordered new arrests and detentions. In December, it acknowledged holding 32 detainees, including 16 GNA and police personnel remaining in detention from the July 22 coup, 13 persons detained after the November 11 attempted countercoup, and 3 others detained for crimes they were alleged to have committed while impersonating GNA officers.

The AFPRC has not resorted to exiling opponents. However, three senior officials of the former government--President Jawara, Vice President Sabally, and Secretary General Janha--remain outside The Gambia under explicit threat of arrest and detention if they return. Other officials who were outside the country at the time of the coup are at similar risk.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The AFPRC claimed that judicial provisions of the Constitution remained in effect, but it exempted its own decrees from court challenge and flagrantly ignored due process rights with respect to arrest, detention, and trial. A tribunal consisting of a lawyer, a police officer, and a private citizen were, at year's end, reviewing cases of military detainees. However, tribunal action is advisory only, and the AFPRC may order indefinite detention of military and police officers following the tribunal's review.

The AFPRC appointed commissions to investigate individuals suspected of corruption. These commissions have powers similar to a grand jury, including authority to imprison and fine for contempt, and to imprison or demand bond from individuals considered likely to abscond. Although modalities are not yet clear, findings of the commission are intended to lead to prosecution of appropriate cases in civil court.

Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the courts traditionally were responsive to executive branch pressure. The courts' slow prosecution of debt recovery cases under the Assets Management and Recovery Corporation Act was cited by the AFPRC as evidence of corruption under the Jawara Government. Cases of interest to the AFPRC moved quickly following the coup, whereas AFPRC intervention impeded prosecution of two cases involving individuals in the AFPRC's favor.

The judicial system remains structurally intact and recognizes customary, Shari'a, and general law. Customary law covers marriage and divorce for non-Muslims, inheritance, land tenure, tribal and clan leadership, and all other traditional and social relations. Shari'a law is observed primarily in Muslim marriage and divorce matters. General law, following the English model, applies to felonies, misdemeanors in urban areas, and the formal business sector. Trials are public, and defendants have the right to an attorney at their own cost.

Most prisoners detained under the AFPRC's anticorruption campaign or for security reasons are political prisoners. Along with the military and police personnel in long-term detention, authorities detained up to 30 additional persons for shorter periods, usually 4 days or less.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Although constitutional safeguards against arbitrary search remain in place, AFPRC priorities in security matters and corruption investigations override these safeguards. Police seized private documents and property without due process and placed armed guards at homes and other properties suspected of having been acquired with embezzled or misappropriated funds. The AFPRC froze accounts of persons under suspicion and prohibited by decree the transfer of their property. It denied persons under house arrest access to international telephone service. Police must generally have court orders to conduct searches related to crimes unless the individual concerned agrees or it is deemed to involve an urgent matter of national interest. The Government has not generally intruded in family matters, and this has remained true under the AFPRC. Security officials are believed to monitor telephone communications.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The AFPRC significantly restricted these freedoms. An AFPRC decree prohibits political activities of all kinds, including possession and distribution of political literature or engaging in political discourse by any other means. Two senior staff of the People's Democratic Organization for Democracy, Independence, and Socialism (PDOIS) were convicted of political activities and possession of the party's newspaper, Foroyaa (Freedom), following promulgation of the decree. The two defendants were required to pay court costs and placed on probation for the life of the decree. Conditions of probation included adherence to the decree and avoidance of activity that would be deleterious to public order. If a probationer violates these conditions, authorities impose a prison sentence of 3 years.

The AFPRC used summary arrest, interrogation, detention, beating, and deportation to intimidate and silence journalists who published articles deemed inaccurate or sensitive. Banjul Daily Observer editor and publisher Kenneth Y. Best, a Liberian national, was deported on October 30 following a series of interrogations and detentions prompted by news stories the AFPRC considered excessively critical. All Gambian newspapers exercised self-censorship. English, French, and other foreign newspapers and magazines are available. There is no television in The Gambia, although the country receives Senegalese broadcasts. Private consumers also use satellite systems but these remain rare. The one government and two private radio stations normally did not reach listeners in the eastern part of the country. Private radio stations simulcast news provided by Radio Gambia, the government station. Senegalese and international radio broadcasts attract wide audiences. There is no university in The Gambia.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The AFPRC decree bans political meetings of any kind and political organizations. Other kinds of assembly are open to the public require police permits. Prior to the coup, police routinely granted permits.

c. Freedom of Religion

Adherents of all faiths are free to worship without government restriction.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Freedom of movement for ordinary citizens remained unimpeded, but the authorities prohibited those under investigation for corruption or security charges from leaving the country.

The Gambia continues to host approximately 2,000 Senegalese refugees, and the AFPRC continued to work with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Gambian Red Cross, and other organizations in dealing with refugees.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens do not have the right to change their government through peaceful means. The AFPRC exercises total power. The first decree issued by the AFPRC suspended legislative and executive sections of the Constitution, including provisions for Parliament and elections. AFPRC Chairman Jammeh repeatedly stated that Western democracy is inappropriate for The Gambia. Four ministers of the 13 in the AFPRC Executive Council (cabinet) are women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

The AFPRC indicated that international human rights concerns are not appropriate for those suspected of corruption or involvement in subversion, since they are considered criminals. However, the AFPRC granted the ICRC unsupervised access to military and police detainees for one visit in November. Human rights advocates, including representatives of the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies and the International Commission of Jurists, attempted to open a dialog but were largely ignored by the AFPRC.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

There is no officially sanctioned discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, language, or social status.


Although four women were appointed to the Executive Council, women face extensive discrimination in education and employment. AFPRC chairman Jammeh criticized women's rights advocates, asserting that their advocacy promoted divisiveness.

Females constitute about one-third of primary school students and roughly one-fourth of the high school enrollment. Employment in the formal sector is open to women at the same salary rates as men. No statutory discrimination exists in other kinds of employment, although women are generally employed in endeavors such as food vending or subsistence farming. Shari'a law is usually applied in divorce and inheritance matters. Marriages are usually arranged, and polygyny is practiced. Women normally receive a lower proportion of assets distributed through inheritance than male relatives.

Domestic violence, including spouse abuse, is occasionally reported but is not common. Police respond when cases are reported, and prosecute offenders if citizens file complaints. The media report on cases under trial.


The care and welfare of children is considered primarily a family responsibility. Authorities intervene when cases of abuse or maltreatment are brought to their attention. The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread and entrenched. Up to 60 percent of females may have undergone this procedure in early youth. Although found by health experts to be both physically and psychologically damaging, rural women strongly support the practice. In 1993 village women drove a prominent female FGM opponent from an upcountry village for speaking against the custom. The AFPRC has yet to take a position on FGM.

Young male children in the care of Koranic teachers have elicited significant concern. These children, known as Almudos, are put in the care of Koranic scholars for a period of Koranic education. Almudos are expected to beg for their food and clothing as well as to support their teachers. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare published a report on Almudos and other street children in June. The report details hardships experienced by Almudos and recommends: legislation to regulate Koranic education, including a ban on placement of children with traditional teachers; regional cooperation to deal with the practice; and establishment of health and nutritional services for Almudos and other street children. The AFPRC has not reacted to the report.

People with Disabilities

There are no statutes or regulations requiring accessibility for the handicapped.

No legal discrimination against the physically disabled exists in employment, education, or other state services. Most severely handicapped individuals subsist through private charity. Less severely handicapped persons are fully accepted in society and encounter no discrimination in employment for which they are physically capable.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Labor law remains unmodified by the AFPRC regime. The Labor Act of 1990 applies to all workers except civil servants. The Act specifies that workers are free to form associations, including trade unions, and provides for their registration with the Government. It specifically prohibits police officers and military personnel, as well as other civil service employees, from forming unions or striking.

Approximately 20 percent of the work force is employed in the modern wage sector, where unions are normally active. Roughly 30,000 workers are claimed as union members, or about 10 percent of the work force. The Gambian Worker's Confederation and the Gambian Workers' Union are the two main independent and competing umbrella organizations. Both are recognized by the Government, but relations with the AFPRC were not tested.

The Labor Act of 1990 authorizes strikes but requires that unions give the Commissioner of Labor 14 days' written notice before beginning an industrial action (28 days for essential services). It prohibits retribution against strikers who comply with the law regulating strikes. Upon application by an employer to the Supreme Court, the Court may prohibit industrial action that is ruled to be in pursuit of a political objective. The Court may also forbid action judged to be in breach of a collectively agreed procedure for settlement of industrial disputes.

Because of these provisions and the weakness of unions, few strikes occur. Strike action was largely limited to a series of slowdowns and wildcat strikes by sanitation workers in greater Banjul to protest unpaid wages. These were interrupted by the July 22 coup did not resume.

Unions may affiliate internationally, and there are no restrictions on union members' participation in international labor activities. The Gambia is not a member of the International Labor Organization.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The Labor Act of 1990 allows workers to organize and bargain collectively. Although trade unions are small and fragmented, collective bargaining does take place. Each recognized union has guidelines for its activities specified by the appropriate industrial council established and empowered by the Labor Act. Union members' wages exceed legal minimums and are determined by collective bargaining, arbitration, or market forces. The Labor Department registers agreements reached between unions and management after insuring that the agreements are in compliance with labor law. No denial of registration has been reported. The 1990 Act also sets minimum contract standards for hiring, training, terms of employment, wages, and termination of employment. The Act provides that contracts may not prohibit union membership. Employers may not fire or discriminate against members of registered unions engaged in legal union activities. There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Criminal Code prohibits compulsory labor, and it is not practiced.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The statutory minimum age for employment is 18. There is no compulsory education, and because of limited secondary school openings most children complete formal education by age 14 and then begin work. Employee labor cards, which include a person's age, are registered with the Labor Commissioner, but enforcement inspections rarely take place. Child labor protection does not extend to youth performing customary chores on family farms or engaged in petty trading.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Minimum wages and working hours are established by law through six joint industrial councils--Commerce, Artisans, Transport, Port Operations, Agriculture, and Fisheries. Labor, management, and government are represented on these councils. The lowest minimum wage is $0.94 (9 Dalasi) per day for unskilled labor. This minimum wage is not adequate to sustain a suitable standard of living for a worker and family. Only 20 percent of the labor force--those in the formal economic sector--are covered by the minimum wage law. The majority of workers are privately or self-employed, often in agriculture. Most Gambians do not live on a single worker's earnings but share resources within extended families.

The basic legal workweek is 48 hours within a period not to exceed 6 consecutive days. A half-hour lunch break is mandated. In the private sector, the workweek includes four 8-hour workdays and 2 half-days (Friday and Saturday). Government employees are entitled to 1 month's paid annual leave after 1 year of service. Private sector employees receive between 14 and 30 days of paid annual leave, depending on length of service.

The Labor Act specifies safety equipment that an employer must provide to employees working in designated occupations. The Factory Act authorizes the Ministry of Labor to regulate factory health and safety, accident prevention, and dangerous trades and to appoint inspectors to ensure compliance with safety standards. Enforcement is spotty owing to insufficient and inadequately trained staff. Workers may refuse to work in dangerous situations and may demand protective equipment and clothing for hazardous workplaces.

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