The History of Gambia

The area that is today Gambia was first populated by mandingos and Berbers, who came to both sides of the Gambia River in the 400s. The country became part of the vast Mali kingdom in the 13th century. As this disintegrated, local chieftains took over parts of the area and created the kingdoms of Barra, Fulladu and Kombo, among others. Portuguese came to the mouth of the Gambia River in 1455 and English and French traders came to the area in the 1600s.

The Gambia was a British colony from 1888 to 1965. Since then, the country has been characterized by several attempts at military coups and many years of military rule. Since 2017, the country has been led by a democratically elected civilian leader.

History of Gambia

Older history

Archaeological finds tell that migration from both the south and the north led to settlement on both sides of the Gambia River around 400 AD In the 13th century the area became part of the great Mali kingdom. As this dissolved, local chieftains established control over parts of the area and proclaimed themselves kings.

The most important kingdoms were Barra, Kombo and Fulladu. Man-speaking people settled and established control over parts of the area in the 13th century, and their influence was broken only when Muslim Fulani tribes established themselves there in the 1800s, after several religious wars.


The Portuguese landed in the Gambia in 1455. The British and French arrived in the late 16th century; they conducted extensive trading inland, where gold, ivory and slaves were the most sought after goods. Control over the area changed between British and French, but in 1783 British control was established. The slave trade ceased officially in 1807, and the British succeeded in entering into agreements with several of the local kings.

The British created the colony of Bathurst, which was occasionally administered from another British possession in West Africa – Sierra Leone. In 1901, Gambia became a British protectorate, and sovereignty was extended to areas inland along the Gambia River.


Gambia’s first political parties were formed in 1951 (Democratic Party and United Party), and in the period 1946–1963, Gambian politicians were included in an indirect government that preceded direct rule and independence. In 1959, the Protectorate People’s Party was formed under the leadership of Dawda Jawara. The party soon changed its name to the Progressive People’s Party (PPP), and won significant support. In the elections that in 1962 paved the way for internal self-government, the PPP emerged victorious, and Jawara became prime minister.

On February 18, 1965, Gambia became an independent state, as a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. In 1970, the country became a republic, with Dawda Jawara as its first president. He was later re-elected in 1972, 1977, 1982, 1987 and 1992. Last time he had announced in advance that he would resign, but still ran for election and received 58 percent of the vote. Although several opposition parties emerged in the 1970s, no one was able to shake off the political dominance of the PPP. The largest of the opposition parties was the National Convention Party (NCP).

Rebellion and coup attempt

In 1980, a political crisis occurred when the commander of the semi-military police force was murdered. President Jawara called for military aid from neighboring Senegal to ensure peace and order, according to a mutual defense agreement between the two countries. In July 1981, while Jawara was traveling abroad, a coup attempt was made, and Jawara called for new military assistance from Senegal, which sent 3,000 soldiers to the Gambia to defeat the uprising.

The coup attempt was led by a leftist radical opposition, Kukoli Samba Sanyang. It is believed that perhaps as many as a thousand were killed during the uprising, which helped to destroy the image of the Gambia as one of the few stable, democratic multi-party states in Africa.

Military Control

In 1994, the military succeeded in putting President Jawara in a coup and seizing power. The coup was implemented by a group of young officers, led by Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh, who established a military council, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC). This took over the governance of the country, with Jammeh as leader and Gambia’s new head of state. Jawara sought refuge on an American naval vessel visiting the Gambia and then went into exile in Senegal, later in the United Kingdom. The United States rejected his request for intervention. Until 1984, Gambia had no army, but on the basis of the coup attempt in 1981 it was, with assistance from Nigeria, built up a smaller defense force. In 1992, the two countries signed an agreement on defense cooperation, and Nigerian officers were engaged to lead the force.

Dissatisfaction with the Nigerian influence in the Gambian defense was cited as one reason for the coup – another stated reason was the corruption among public officials. The coup was internationally condemned, and most of Gambia’s financial aid stopped; so did the economically very important tourism industry. In November 1994, the first of several failed coup attempts against the AFPRC took place; later trials were reported, among others in 1995, 2000 and 2006.

In 1996, an attack was directed against the Farafenni garrison, killing six soldiers. The attack must have been carried out by a group trained in Libya and led by Kukoli Samba Sanyang, who had also participated in the civil war in Liberia on the side of rebel Charles Taylor. At least 12 people were killed in clashes between demonstrating students and armed forces in 2000, in protest of alleged torture and murder of a student the previous year. In 1996, former President Jawara was indicted, in absentia, for misappropriation of public funds. In 2001, he was granted amnesty and returned to The Gambia the following year, though without the opportunity to participate in political activities.

Reinstatement of civilian government

The transition to civilian rule was carried out by the election of president in 1996 and national assembly in 1997. Party political activity was again allowed, although several former parties and politicians were prevented from participating. Jammeh stood as a civilian candidate and was elected president after defeating Ousainou Darboe of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and two other candidates. Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (AFPRC), got 33 out of a total of 45 seats in the parliamentary elections; the second largest party was UDP. Jammeh was then re-elected in 2001 and 2006, both times with Darboe as the closest challenger. The AFPRC again gained a pure majority in the parliamentary elections in 2002 and 2007. The UDP boycotted the elections in 2002, but became the second largest in 2007. Prior to the 2006 presidential election, the five largest opposition parties in 2005 came together in a coalition,National Alliance for Democracy and Development (NADD).

Although the election ground in 2001–2002 was considered free and open by international observers, democratic developments in the Gambia have also been characterized by abuses against oppositionists, partly against political opponents of the government, and even more so with the media; journalists have been arrested and imprisoned several times. In 2004, the editor of the weekly newspaper The Point, Deyda Hydara, was shot and killed. New media laws introduced in 2002 were condemned as attempts to curb criticism of the president and the government; the law was further tightened in 2004, to national and international protests.

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