Is Gambia a viable state?

By Gunnar Westberg

Gambia, or properly The Gambia, is a curious remnant of the British Empire, a crooked British finger poking from the Atlantic coast into Francophone Senegal. It is the smallest state in Africa, with about 1.6 million inhabitants.

Gambia was a hot spot for tourism 20 or 30 years ago, but is now largely bypassed by many other attractive subtropical or tropical countries and Gambia never discussed in international media.

The country is poor. One third of the population lives under the UN poverty line of US $ 1.25 per day. The UN Development Index places the country as number 168 out of 187. About 70% of the population is engaged in farming. The output of the agriculture is low and there is little interest in promoting improvement. Malnutrition is widespread, although starvation probably is rare, and I saw no case of Kwashiorkor.

Of children under five 22% are stunted (World Food Program 2010). The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and even more on the support from Gambians working abroad. Both these sources have decreased because of the economic crisis in Europe and the USA. This also affects tourism, a very important source of foreign currency.

The attendance rate in primary school is low, although the schools are free and compulsory. There is no teaching in the indigenous languages, such as Wolof, Mandinka and Diola, and no newspapers and almost nothing else is printed in these languages. The ability to read English is low. An estimate is that less than 30% of the population can read English newspapers. Of these papers, only one dares to criticize the government, and its chief editor was assassinated in 2004. Independent radio stations are closed and the TV is devoted to the praise of the president.

The biggest problem in the country is undoubtedly President Yahya Jammeh or as he likes to be addressed His Excellency Sheikh Professor Al Haji Dr Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh. He took power through a coup in 1994 at the age of 29 years. Army Lieutenant Jammeh had little schooling background but had received some military education in the United States. He has since been elected and re-elected many times in generally unfair and undemocratic elections.

During his long period of power, the President has taken control over large sectors of the Gambian economy. “Everybody in my family or among my relatives will be provided for during five generations,” promises the President. This is a heavy burden for such a small nation.

Jammeh seems obsessed with the idea of being a medical doctor. With his bare hands, he can heal diabetes and HIV/AIDS, but requires that the patients stop taking their medication. Sometimes he makes ward rounds in hospitals. Recently he has devoted less energy on the healing of AIDS and concentrated on the treatment of infertility in women using a concoction of his own invention.

A soothsayer has told Mr Jammeh that he is going to be killed by a witch. Thus he has arranged witch-hunts in the villages. Women pointed out by his “advisers” as witches are taken from the village and subjected to different methods of exorcism, including severe beating and drugs.

If the president dies or if he is removed from power because of progressive madness, can the country recover? Gambia has certain positive factors: There is no war. There is no enemy and the relation to the surrounding country Senegal is good. Moslems and Christians and the many tribes get along well. There is little violence among individuals. Perhaps Gambians living abroad would come back and help? There is a need for educated people of all kinds. But even if the President disappears the country is not likely to develop without extensive outside help.

We traveled in Gambia with an old friend who knows the country well. We went to some villages and families in great need, bringing rice and clothes. The price of rice has increased more than 50% in two years and not everybody can buy enough for their family.
The agriculture was hit by severe weather conditions in 2011 and the agricultural output decreased by maybe as much as 60%. This means starvation will come.

A report by the World Food Program will soon be released and show details on the situation. Other countries in West Africa such as Senegal, Mali, Mauretania are reporting severe food shortage, but the President of Gambia claims that the food supply in his country is adequate and no need is necessary. So no food assistance will be arriving to Gambia…

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