2001 Scores

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


Several key events contributed to a charged political atmosphere by year's end in The Gambia in the lead-up to presidential elections scheduled for October 2001. There was an alleged coup attempt against President Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh in January. In April, security forces killed 16 people in clashes with student demonstrators who had been protesting the earlier killing of a student. Two months later, authorities charged the leader of the opposition United Democratic Party, Ousainou Darboe, and 24 others with murder after a clash with ruling party members. One person died. Charges against all but Darboe and four others were dropped. An opposition leader, in late October, called on all politicians to resume activities and warned that a "people's power" revolution such as the one that toppled Côte d'Ivoire's military ruler could unfold in The Gambia if elections were not free and fair.

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 it was dissolved 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, promising transparency, accountability, and early elections. Instead, they quickly imposed draconian decrees curtailing civil and political rights and the free media.

Local government elections that were originally scheduled to be held in 1997 were to take place in November 2000. They have been postponed until January 2001, but there is doubt as to whether they will be held at all before the October presidential polls. In December, Jammeh sacked the head of the Independent Electoral Commission after the supreme court had ruled in its favor. The commission was pursing legal action against the government over its refusal to organize local elections under existing laws. The government is wary of defeat in local elections because the decentralization of power will probably make it more difficult for the ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction to win the presidential vote and win it fairly. The 1996 presidential poll was marred by intimidation, irregularities, and fraud. Legislative elections in January 1997 produced a sweeping victory for the ruling party, but were deeply flawed.

The Gambia is a poor, tiny country of approximately one million people, most of whom are subsistence farmers.

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 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 the 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.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. While lower courts are sometimes subject to executive influence, the judiciary in general has demonstrated its independence on several occasions, at times in significant cases. There are a number of judges from Nigeria, Ghana, and other African countries, who tend to operate fairly and vigorously. Local chiefs preside over courts at the village level. The judicial system recognizes customary law, or Sharia (Islamic law), primarily in marriage matters.

Performance of the courts is being tested through a lawsuit brought by popular opposition figure Omar Jallow. He has taken the government to court over Decree 89, which prohibits any former ministers from participating in political activity or taking up a government post until 2024. The severe penalties for challenging the decree, including large fines and life imprisonment, have prevented anyone from challenging it. Jallow is currently working abroad.

The Jammeh regime has awarded itself extensive repressive powers. A 1995 decree allows the National Intelligence Agency 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." In such cases, the right to seek a writ of habeas corpus is suspended. Torture in jails and barracks has been reported. The International Committee of the Red Cross and human rights groups have been allowed to visit prisons, where life-threatening conditions prevail. Human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations operate relatively freely.

Freedom of assembly is restricted. Free expression and the independent press have been constant targets of Jammeh's repression. There are vibrant, independent print media, but harassment and self-censorship inhibit free expression. The draft National Media Commission Bill would make annual registration compulsory for all media houses and journalists, as well as give extra powers to the minister of information, allowing him to revoke registration licenses.

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. There was an attempt to burn down the independent Radio 1-FM during the year. Citizen FM, which the government closed in February 1998, began broadcasting again in late 2000 following a court judgment in its favor. Citizen FM broadcasts in a number of indigenous languages.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed, and the government respects this right. Religious and traditional obstacles to the advancement of women are being addressed by both the government and women's organizations. The vice president is a woman. However, higher education and wage employment opportunities for women are still far fewer than those for men, especially in rural areas. Sharia provisions regarding family law and inheritance restrict women's rights. Marriages often are arranged. Female genital mutilation is widely practiced, but women's groups are working to eliminate the practice.

All workers except civil servants and security forces may unionize under the 1990 Labor Act, which also provides the right to strike. Activities of the country's two labor federations are limited by broader restrictions on political rights and civil liberties.

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