The Gambia, a country on the western coast of Africa, fronting the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal encloses the country on the other three sides. Straddling the Gambia River, the country extends eastward for about 320 km (200 mi) from the Atlantic Ocean. At its widest, this narrow country measures only about 50 km (30 mi) across.
The Gambia, also called Gambia, is the smallest country on the African mainland. Among African countries, only the Seychelles, a group of islands off the The Gambia became a British colony during the 1800s. It gained its independence in 1965. Following independence, The Gambia was regarded by Westerners as a stable democracy until a bloodless military coup in 1994 removed its president. Yahya Jammeh, the military leader who became president after the coup, was subsequently reelected
Stone circles, tools, and pottery found near Banjul indicate early occupation of the area. Evidence of iron work dates from the 8th century ad. Numerous ethnic groups entered The Gambia after the 13th century. Chief among these were the Mandinka, Wolof, and Fulani peoples. Early states paid tribute to the Mali Empire; the different groups later created small kingdoms in the valley of the Gambia River.
In 1455 Portuguese explorers entered the region and soon established trading stations along the river. These were supplanted in the 17th century by companies from England and France that had royal charters. The English and French were primarily interested in the slave trade and possible sources of gold, and they struggled for control of the river. Under the Treaty of Paris signed in 1783, the French abandoned their claims in the area to the British in exchange for land in Senegal.
After the prohibition of slave trading throughout the British Empire in 1807, the British tried to control the traffic in the area by establishing a trading station at the mouth of the Gambia River. This effort led them to purchase Banjul Island from the ruler of a local kingdom in 1816. The station grew into the town of Bathurst (now Banjul). Peanut trade from the settlement began by 1829.
Ongoing warfare between the Soninke and followers of Islam called Marabouts hampered British expansion into the upper river areas until the European race for African territory began in the late 19th century. To protect its position, Britain then claimed the Gambia River. In an 1889 agreement with France, The Gambia’s present boundaries were established. The area became a British protectorate in 1894. In the following years, British administrators governed the population largely through local rulers, and Britain encouraged economic self-sufficiency.
After World War II (1939-1945) Britain belatedly began to develop The Gambia and to train some Africans for administrative posts. Political parties were formed and in 1960 nationwide elections were held for members of the territory’s legislative council. In the 1962 election the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) gained a substantial majority, and its leader, Dawda Jawara, became the first prime minister.
The Gambia became independent on February 18, 1965, with Jawara as prime minister. In a 1970 national referendum Gambians voted to form a republic, and Jawara was elected president. He and his PPP won the 1972 and 1977 elections. In 1981 a coup attempt was crushed while Jawara was visiting the United Kingdom. The coup failed because troops from Senegal intervened under a mutual defense pact, but about 1,000 people died in the conflict.
A consequence of Senegal’s aid in putting down the coup was the creation in 1982 of a confederation with Senegal, Senegambia, with President Abdou Diouf of Senegal as president and Jawara as vice president. The confederation resulted in closer economic cooperation, but never supplanted the political systems of the two nations and never won the full approval of Gambians. Jawara retained the presidency of The Gambia in the elections of 1982 and 1987, and the confederation with Senegal collapsed in 1989. Despite accusations of corruption and misrule, Jawara was reelected as president of The Gambia in 1992.
The Gambia began to develop its own armed forces for the first time after the 1981 coup attempt, and in the early 1990s the young officers of this force grew impatient with their meager pay and with government corruption. A bloodless coup on July 22, 1994, forced Jawara into exile and led to the proclamation of Lieutenant (later Colonel) Yahya Jammeh as president. European countries and the United States objected to these maneuvers and pressed the military regime to restore democracy. For two years the government banned political activity and prosecuted cases of official corruption.
Under international pressure to hold democratic elections, Jammeh oversaw the promulgation of a new constitution that virtually guaranteed him victory in September 1996 presidential elections through candidate age limits and financial restrictions on political parties. Jammeh disbanded the Provisional Ruling Council, retired from the army, declared himself a candidate for president, and restored political activity while prohibiting three major political parties (including the PPP) from participating in the elections. A number of countries that had provided aid to The Gambia cut off their funds after the 1994 coup.