Author: Freedom House
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: 2021
The Gambia was ruled for over two decades by former president Yahya Jammeh, who consistently violated political rights and civil liberties. The 2016 election resulted in a surprise victory for opposition candidate Adama Barrow. Fundamental freedoms including the rights to free assembly, association, and expression initially improved thereafter, but the progress toward the consolidation of the rule of law is slow. The Barrow government has faced increasing criticism over corruption. LGBT+ individuals face severe discrimination and violence against women remains a serious problem.
The president is directly elected to a five-year term and faces no term limits. International observers were not allowed into The Gambia ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) nevertheless conducted an impartial vote count, and declared that Adama Barrow, the candidate of an opposition coalition, won.
President Jammeh initially conceded defeat, but reversed his position, and had not stepped down by the time Barrow was inaugurated in Senegal in early 2017. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mobilized troops under a previous authorization to intervene militarily if a peaceful transfer of power did not begin by the last day of Jammeh’s mandate. Within days of its deployment, Jammeh conceded defeat and left the country, allowing Barrow to take office.
Of the 58 members of the unicameral National Assembly, 53 are elected by popular vote and the remainder are appointed by the president; members serve five-year terms. The 2017 parliamentary elections were transparent, peaceful, and neutrally managed. Weaknesses included low turnout, incomplete updating of the voter registry, and poor organization of vote-collation processes. Nevertheless, most polling stations operated on time and vote counting was transparent. The United Democratic Party (UDP), which had backed Barrow and had previously been in opposition, won 31 seats and an absolute majority.
The media environment has improved under the Barrow administration. More people are entering the profession, exiled journalists have returned to the country, and there has been a proliferation of private print, online, radio, and television outlets. In 2019, the government exempted print media from a levy that media groups argued was designed to restrict press freedom. Nevertheless, some restrictive media laws remain in effect, and some have been upheld by courts. Reports of harassment of journalists by police continue.
The 2019 draft constitution, which did not attain legislative approval in 2020, omitted a reference to The Gambia as a secular country
The Barrow government has maintained that The Gambia is a secular society in which all faiths can practice freely. In practice, non-Sunni Islamic groups experience discrimination. The 2019 draft constitution, which did not attain legislative approval in 2020, omitted a reference to The Gambia as a secular country, prompting concern among civil society.
Academic freedom was severely limited at the University of The Gambia under Jammeh. However, since Barrow took office, the environment for the free exchange of ideas among students and professors has improved, despite lingering challenges. Lecturers still face political pressure.
Gambians have more freedom to express political views under the Barrow administration. However, sedition laws remain on the books, which some analysts argued could be used to criminalize criticism of the government on social media. The government considered criminalizing statements deemed offensive or insulting to public officials in 2019, but refrained from officially proposing it after a leak of the draft language provoked public outcry.
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but the Public Order Act (POA), which was used by Jammeh to restrict protests, remains in force. Under the POA, permits from the police inspector general are required for public assemblies.
Gambians have more freedom to express political views under the Barrow administration
Three Years Jotna, a pressure group that called for President Barrow to step down in line with his original three-year timetable, organized an approved January 2020 demonstration in Banjul. However, participants faced a violent response from the authorities after deviating from their original route, with security forces using tear gas and physically attacking demonstrators. The authorities arrested 137 people, including high-ranking Three Years Jotna members. The group itself was banned later in January and eight of its members received charges including rioting and unlawful assembly, which remained pending at year’s end.
President Barrow imposed a COVID-19-related state of emergency in March 2020, banning public assemblies. Other social gatherings were banned in August. Most pandemic-related restrictions were rescinded or relaxed by year’s end, however.
Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights
There are no legal restrictions on freedom to change one’s place of residence or employment. In practice, the endurance of strong kinship networks, unclear land-ownership rules, and economic speculation impact Gambians’ ability to change residence.
Travel was restricted by the pandemic-related state of emergency in March 2020, with the land border with Senegal closed and nonmedical flights banned. A nationwide curfew was introduced in August but expired by December.
Gambian law provides formal protection of property rights, although Sharia (Islamic law) provisions on family law and inheritance can facilitate discrimination against women. Corruption hampers legitimate business activity. Land ownership is a contentious issue in The Gambia, with conflicts sometimes escalating into violence. These disputes are exacerbated by unclear division of responsibilities between traditional and state authorities.
Rape and domestic violence are illegal, but common. There are no laws prohibiting polygamy or levirate marriage, in which a widow is married off to the younger brother of her spouse. Female genital mutilation (FGM) was outlawed in 2015, but is still practiced by some; there is evidence that rates of FGM and child marriage have increased since the end of the Jammeh regime. The Barrow government has undertaken steps to address child marriage and gender-based violence (GBV) and announced a national campaign to address domestic and sexual violence in December 2020.
Les Wathinotes sont des extraits de publications choisies par WATHI et conformes aux documents originaux. Les rapports utilisés pour l’élaboration des Wathinotes sont sélectionnés par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au contexte du pays. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.