1998 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.0
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 7

Ratings Change

The Gambia's civil liberties rating changed from 6 to 5 due to a slight decreases in government repression


Gambian President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh made slow progress in gaining international credibility for his government and convincing Western donors to resume international aid. Governmental oppression, including arrests of opposition supporters and sharp restrictions and attacks on the press, continued throughout the year. Jammeh seized power as an army lieutenant in 1994 and was proclaimed president after a show election in September 1996. Legislative elections in January 1997 produced a sweeping victory for the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party, but were deeply flawed. Several of Jammeh's former comrades-in-arms hold key cabinet posts. Abuses by the military and National Intelligence Agency (NIA) continued, and security forces acted with impunity.

After receiving independence from Britain in 1965, The Gambia functioned as an electoral democracy under President Sir Dawda K. Jawara and his People's Progressive Party for almost 30 years. A 1981 coup by leftist soldiers was reversed by intervention from Senegal, which borders The Gambia on three sides. The two countries formed the Confederation of Senegambia a year later, but the Gambia withdrew in 1989. Senegal declined to rescue the Jawara government again when Jammeh struck in 1994.

The leaders of the 1994 coup denounced the ousted government's alleged corruption and promised transparency, accountability, and early elections. Instead, they quickly imposed draconian decrees curtailing civil and political rights and the free media. A reported November 1994 countercoup was apparently crushed, and several alleged plotters were summarily executed. Several other coup attempts have been reported.

The Gambia is a tiny, poor country of approximately one million people, most of whom are subsistence farmers. It depends upon foreign aid for approximately three-quarters of its national budget. A reported security agreement with Libya has evoked fears of a Gambian and Libyan connection to the guerrilla struggle in Senegal's southern Casamance province by people of President Jammeh's Jola ethnicity. Jammeh has denied involvement in Casamance and in the army mutiny in Guinea-Bissau

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Gambia's citizens are denied their right to choose or change their government by peaceful means. The country's 1996 presidential and 1997 legislative elections were neither free nor fair, and President Jammeh and his parliamentary majority cannot be considered as democratically elected. The 1996 presidential contest barred the most formidable opposition candidates and was marked by military intimidation of the opposition and heavy use of state resources and media to promote Jammeh's candidacy. A new constitution adopted by a closely controlled 1996 referendum allowed Jammeh to transform his military dictatorship to a nominally civilian administration.

Occasional state violence marked the broader pattern of human rights abuses. The Jammeh regime has awarded itself extensive repressive powers. A 1995 decree allows the NIA to cite "state security" to "search, arrest, or detain any person, or seize, impound, or search any vessel, equipment, plant, or property without a warrant." The interior minister may arrest without warrant anyone "in the interest of the security, peace, and stability of the Gambia." In such cases, the right to seek a writ of habeas corpus is suspended. A number of United Democratic Party leaders and activists were seized in May on the eve of their annual party congress. Several were reportedly tortured during three weeks' detention. The Gambia's legal system exists in form, but with little substance. Arbitrary detention and the denial of due process are common. Extrajudicial killings and torture in jails and barracks have been reported. Except for religious observances, public assembly is severely limited. Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) still operate in several areas. Severe and life-threatening conditions prevail in Gambian prisons, and NGO requests for visits have been ignored.

Free expression and the independent press have been constant targets of Jammeh's repression. Three Daily Observer journalists, including the chair of the Gambian Press Union, were detained for nearly two weeks in August. The paper's offices were raided and staff detained earlier in the year as part of a campaign of harassment. Self-censorship is widespread. Possession and distribution of documents deemed to be "political literature" is barred by decree. State-run Radio Gambia broadcasts only tightly controlled news that is also relayed by private radio stations. A single government-run television station now operates. In February, the private Citizen FM radio station was closed.

Women suffer de facto discrimination despite legal protections. Education and wage employment opportunities for women are far fewer than those for men, especially in rural areas. Shari'a law provisions regarding family law and inheritance restrict women's rights. Female genital mutilation is widely practiced.

All workers except civil servants and security forces may unionize under the 1990 Labor Act, which also provides the right to strike. The country's two labor federations, the Gambian Worker's Confederation and the Gambian Workers' Union, have not been banned, but their activities are limited by broader restrictions on political rights and civil liberties.

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