The River Gambia has been a busy trading zone since medieval times. During the colonial period, several European powers contested 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 after World War 2 and 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.
A period of hope and relative prosperity matched by an era of political stability followed and 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 and 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.
Since the turn of the century, The Gambia has had a period of relatively high economic growth backed by a tourist boom and apparent stability. 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.
Did you know?
• Contemporary Gambian music fuses Western sounds with Sabar, the traditional drumming and dancing of the Wolof and Serer peoples.
• The River Gambia is navigable deep into the continent, which made it an important and profitable site for the slave trade. Once slave trading was declared illegal in the 19th century the river became a strategic factor in its end.
• The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa.