The River Gambia has been a busy trading zone since medieval times. During the colonial period, several European powers contested for ownership of the river with Britain eventually prevailing, and The Gambia became a British Protectorate in the 1820s, surrounded by the French-ruled Senegal.
The drive for Gambian independence gained momentum post-WWII when Africans recruited to fight for the allies returned home to discover they were still classed as second rate citizens. In 1961 the first universal franchise election was held, with Dawda Jawara winning. The Gambia became the last of Britain’s West African colonies to attain full independence, mainly because it was so small and poor that doubts surfaced about its economic viability. A merger with Senegal was suggested but rejected when the issue of how to share power could not be resolved. Eventually, in 1965 The Gambia achieved independence and Jawara became the country’s first Prime Minister before assuming the role of President when the country became a republic in 1970 as a member of the Commonwealth.
Immediately post-independence the signs were good, with a period of hope and relative prosperity matched by an era of political stability. With elections conducted every five years, The Gambia is one of the oldest multi-party democracies in Africa. However, dissatisfaction within the military and a failed coup in 1981 led to the establishment of the Senegambia Confederation in 1982, which aimed to unify the political, economic and defence structure of the two countries. The confederation lasted until 1989 when the project was aborted.
Nonetheless, close relations have remained between the two since the divorce. A bloodless coup in 1994 caught everyone by surprise but was welcomed by the majority of the population who considered Jawara corrupt. Yahya Jammeh, a military man, assumed control and promptly banned political activity. In response Western governments withdrew support for the country and the tourist industry collapsed, only recovering when Jammeh called elections in 1996, which he duly won. He has been in power ever since, winning two further elections in 2001 and 2006.
Since the onset of the 21st century, The Gambia has had a period of relatively high economic growth backed by a tourist boom, and apparent stability. A few visible remnants of the colonial years remain: weather-beaten stone fortresses, built to defend the river, and old merchants’ houses. The country retains strong connections with Britain and is one of the few parts of West Africa where English, rather than French, is the official language. Under the surface however, Jammeh has become increasingly repressive. A crackdown on press freedom and worrying declarations such as his announcement of a discovery of a cure for HIV/aids (involving a secret bouquet of herbs and fruit) has led some observers to consider the country a police state.