Gambia: from a state of improbability to persistence


Surely, that could be the most disturbing message any parent could receive, especially when they had been hard luck for many years to have a child. But if that child is the only salvation for these parents, that message was surely not for them, as they would do all they can to save their child from the spell cast on it the very day it breathed into this world.

This was the case of a West African nation, Kambiyaa, a country reduced to snake-size by her colonial powers and later became known as The Gambia. At Independence, the then over 300, 000 population nation, colonised by the Great Britain, received its greatest blow when it was concluded that it was not viable as a state and must be annexed to the neighbouring former French colony of Senegal in order to avoid a state of collapse. This ill-starred judgment came at a time when centuries-old colonial hegemony had virtually left the country with nothing, leaving it to sadly continue the legacy of monoculture – dependence on groundnut cultivation – to sustain the economic life of the impoverished world’s newest nation (166) on the United Nations list of countries. Such were the difficult times when the country’s Independence leaders the likes of Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara were thrown into, using their small resources to prove the doubters wrong. These leaders were firmed, and emboldened by the remarks of the renowned Pan-Africanist and Ghana’s Independence leader, Nkrumah that: “We face neither East nor West; we face Forward”, they beat the drum of sovereignty so hard that national reorientation vibrated at every nook and cranny of the country. Today, the story has been a different one with the country not only maintaining its position as an oasis in a volatile region, but developing in an impressive manner.

The success of half a century of nationhood was by no means attained on a silver platter. The Gambia that became the 37th African nation to gain freedom had paid so direly the challenge of nationhood in a turbulent world. The post-Independence was characterised by serious national and global challenges that tested the nation to its limits. Even merely putting a question mark on Gambia’s viability as a nation was all in itself a major challenge in that the country’s life was put on the line. 


“It was a big challenge that even the United Nations was compelled to send a fact finding mission to The Gambia to see how true or false this notion was. The fact was that this notion of The Gambia not being a viable state went up to the stage that even businesses were affected soon after Independence. So a lot of them like Kingsway, UAC (United African Company) etc. were pulled out of the country after Independence because of this notion,” a researcher and prominent Gambian historian, Hassoum Ceesay recalled.

At Independence, the level of education of Gambians was more or less in a sorry state giving that the colonial masters had built only two senior secondary schools with others sanctioned by Christian missionaries. With this status quo, how then was the newest nation expected to head on with her Independence promise? The most significant challenge for The Gambia, therefore, became the need for a critical human resource base to move the new nation forward. This situation was exacerbated by virtually no strong financial resources base for the nation, and for Mr Ceesay, this state of affairs forced The Gambia to rely on what he called grant-in-aid from the former colonial masters.

“The first three years of Independence, The Gambia could not balance her budget; we had to depend on something called grant-in-aid from the United Kingdom. This is because we had a monoculture – agriculture only (groundnut); 90 percent of our export – 86 was dependent on groundnut. The fact that we didn’t have an institution of higher learning also meant that the human resource base was extremely weak,” he recollected.

External factors also had their negative toll on the country. For instance, the 1973 external shock on The Gambia as a result of a severe drought in the Sahel did not spare the country, wreaking havoc on its eight-year-old economy. The civil wars in the neighbouring countries that resulted in the influx of refugees equally compromised the nation’s economy. For Ceesay, The Gambia being an oasis within a troubled region has cost it to a greater extent.

“Since the late 1980s there were civil wars in the sub-region; in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cassamance of Senegal and Guinea Bissau. What these spots of instability had done was the [surge of] refugees in a small country. So we found ourselves in a situation where we had to accommodate all these at great cost. The issue of peacekeeping also was another thing because as early as the 1990 The Gambia was spending money on this. So with all these spots, the export trade of The Gambia was compromised and suffered greatly,” Ceesay said.


Oil crisis

Eight years into self-administration, The Gambia also faced another economic problem when oil prices skyrocketed as a result of the 1973 Arab-Israel War. The crisis happened because overnight, the Arabs stopped producing oil and the price of oil went through the roof, Ceesay said.

“So poor countries like The Gambia suddenly had their oil bill quadrupled. But there also what The Gambia did was to start opening new economic relations with the Arab World. This is because after Independence, the first six years we didn’t do much work with the Arab World, but as a result of the oil crisis, The Gambia said we have to open an alternative economic lifeline. Then a Gambian embassy was opened in Saudi Arabia as early as 1974 and another in Libya in 1976. Also relations were established with Gulf States like Kuwait, Oman, Abu Dhabi and this had really helped to take The Gambia out of it”.  


1981 Abortive coup

The single biggest calamity to befall The Gambia in its political history was perhaps the infamous 1981 Abortive Coup, orchestrated by misguided insurgents under the watch of a ‘failed teacher and politician’, Kukoi Sampa Sanyang. The weeklong crisis that nearly ousted President Jawara was the bloodiest in the nation’s history given the untold suffering and deaths it brought to peace-loving Gambians and other law-abiding foreign nationals. Whereas it was widely seen by many political analysts as the “greatest assault on Gambia’s democracy”, Ceesay thinks it is the “biggest national calamity” that The Gambia had ever gone through. 

His reasons: “Hundreds died; we still don’t know how much but official is 500; millions of dalasis lost; The Gambia lost her image briefly and there were lootings. If you ask me a real calamity, it was this coup. This was a terrifying moment for this country, but we were also able to overcome it through our international friends. Within a few months, the country was able to have elections in 1982”.



With a poor economic baseline, fewer educated citizens and almost zero infrastructures, the question was and still is how The Gambia was able to overcome these painful shocks? One of the strategies locally designed by the First Republic was called the “Tesito”, a Mandinka parlance meaning “belt tightening”, and literary referring to self-help. The “Tesito” Programme had seen a number of projects, such as schools, markets, causeways and other facilities put across communities in The Gambia.

Ceesay said the “Tesito” Programme was in a way responding to the idea that the country was not viable to move on. Hence, he said, people were urged to go and do things for themselves. “You live in the village, yes and you want a school, yes. Well start a school and later government will send teachers. This worked for a very long time. So “Tesito” was a direct response to the notion that we cannot survive and schools, markets, causeways, access roads and the likes were built on “Tessito”,” he said.


Banjul Declaration

The Gambia also responded to the 1973 drought with an environmental policy called the Banjul Declaration in 1977, which called for the full protection of the nation’s flora and fauna to avert natural calamities. This made The Gambia to become one of the first countries to have a policy on environment.


Mediation Committee on Iran-Iraq War

Small as her resources were, the nation has since the First Republic been active in the maintenance of global peace and order. For example, the nation had played an instrumental role in the Iraq-Iran War through Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who was then the vice president of the Mediation Committee on Iran-Iraq War. 

“The Gambia played a very important role from 1981 up to the end of the war around 1988. Even the Libyan sanctions, The Gambia played a very significant role in UN ending them because The Gambia was then a member of the UN Security Council,” Ceesay said.



On the sub-regional front, the nation hosted a summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1990 during which the idea for the West African standby force known as the ECOMOG was born. The leaders at the time insisted that the only way to maintaining peace and stability in the sub-region was for West African countries themselves to take up the initiative through peacekeeping. Up to date, The Gambia continues to contribute in no small measure to international peacekeeping. Even as The Gambia celebrates Golden Jubilee, its sons and daughters are scattered around the world’s restive regions maintaining law and order. 


July 1994 Revolution

The 22nd July bloodless coup in 1994 that ushered in the Second Republic was another eventful chapter in the political history of The Gambia, ending the 30-year-old rule of President Jawara and his Peoples’ Progress Party (PPP) government. Under the watch of the then Lt. Yahya AJJ Jammeh who would be later elected four times in general elections, the new government (now 20 years old) has a different approach. It trumpeted self-reliance, probity, accountability and transparency, with Vision 2020 as its main strategic development master design. This vision has been complemented by three others; the Programme for Accelerated Growth and Employment (PAGE), government’s medium term blueprint 2012-2015; Vision 2016 – that aims to end food imports by next year; and Agenda 2024 – that aims to make The Gambia an “economic super power”.


AU Summit

The Gambia has also played a significant role in international relations. The AU Summit it hosted in 2006 was a great diplomatic achievement for the nation as it was the first time that it grouped almost all the African leaders to discuss an array of issues bordering on the continent’s development.


Pre-Independence calamities 

Looking back at the pre-Independence era, The Gambian people had endured perhaps the worst forms of calamities to have befallen on any colonial subjects. The 1947 floods in Banjul, the 1919 Rinderpest and 1867 cholera outbreaks respectively, in the words of Ceesay, were so severe that they not only shamed colonial masters, but also exposed colonialism’s lack of a development agenda.

“The floods happened in Banjul because there was no sewage system; no canals; and you know Bathurst is under sea level and so it flooded for almost one week. It was a sad incident but was also a wakeup call because it shamed the British to start doing some infrastructure.

“You also had the cholera epidemic in 1867, which killed 70 percent of the population. This was another case of colonial negligence because whilst people were dying, the governor was still trying to get permission from London where to spend the money on saving lives. 

“In 1919 we had the Rinderpest Outbreak, which killed 90 percent of our cattle population. Colonialism had no development agenda; the agenda was exploitation which they succeeded in doing. In fact Gambians contributed to their causes. In the First World War, 500 Gambians fought and over 4000 Gambians fought in the Second World War. From my own research, Gambians contributed up to 30, 000 Pounds and the money was raised by ordinary Gambians – farmers, clerks and so on to support Britain’s war effort in the Second World War. This was an addition to Gambians who died in the war. In Burma alone, you have 71 Gambians buried there”.


Enlightened leadership

From these challenges, it is glaring that the leadership in both the First and Second Republics have worked on Gambia’s Independence promise – safeguarding of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The success of the country, Ceesay believes, is as a result of “an enlightened leadership since Independence and a willing and cooperative people”. 

At fifty years of nationhood, The Gambia, a country once deemed unfit to govern itself has indeed persisted, weathered the storms, and against all odds, maintains its position among nations of the world.

Happy Golden Jubilee! 


Hatab Fadera, is a student at the School of Journalism and Digital Media, University of The Gambia.