Determined to suppress dissent, President Yahya Jammeh is taking measures to ensure that his 16-year rule does not end in the same way it began, with a coup. Jammeh has mastered the art of playing potential challengers against each other. Giving a clear signal that even those in his closest entourage are not immune from treason charges, a former defence chief and head of the country’s Olympic committee, Lang Tombong Tamba, was one of eight officials sentenced to death in July 2010 for an alleged coup attempt in 2006. Sweeps of the security agencies are regular.
Crime and drug trafficking are rising. A former head of police, Ensa Badjie, and a former head of the National Drug Enforcement Agency, Ibrahim Bun Sanneh, went on trial in September on drugs and corruption charges. The authorities seized a record haul of 2.1tn of cocaine in June with the help of the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency, leading to charges against 12 suspects.
The National Assembly subsequently approved the death penalty for anyone convicted of possessing more than 250g of cocaine or heroin. Jammeh is confident of victory in presidential elections scheduled for September 2011. There seems little chance that Gambia’s opposition parties will unite as they did in 2006 to field a joint candidate. The United Democratic Party, led by Ousainou Darboe and which polled 26.7% of the vote in 2006, wants other smaller parties to join it to form a common front, but most Gambians seem unwilling to risk the trouble of supporting the opposition in a fractious campaign.
Western donors are unhappy with Jammeh’s record on human rights. A bill put before the US Senate in July sought to limit aid to $120,000 for drug and law enforcement unless political prisoners, including journalist Ebrima Manneh, were released. In May, the EU froze a €25m disbursement of budget support because of concerns over human rights.
The Commonwealth says it is undertaking quiet diplomacy to push for improved governance, but the effects are not apparent. Other aid continues to flow. The Indian government has provided a loan for a new $10m parliament building in Banjul, due for completion in 2011.
Arab donors have pledged $51m for a new campus for the University of The Gambia at Faraba Bantang. Despite uncertainty at the finance ministry, the IMF forecasts that the economy will grow by 5.4% in 2011, up slightly from 5% in 2010. Agriculture has been the main driver of growth.
Farmers are moving away from groundnut production towards rice, with areas under rice cultivation doubling between 2007 and 2009. The expected privatisation of the Gambia Groundnut Company, which was seized from the Swiss company Alimenta in 1999, has yet to materialise. Rising exports helped achieve a balance of payments surplus of $48m in the first quarter of 2010 after a deficit in 2009.
There was a decline in inflows from tourism and remittances, which in turn hit the construction industry. The IMF criticised Gambia’s level of fiscal discipline, especially the practice of using short-term treasury bills to finance costly domestic debt. Year-on-year inflation rose to a 14-month high of 6.2% at the end of July 2010 and the prospects of higher food prices in 2011 could lead to more increases.
Between 2007 and 2010 the number of banks doubled to 14, leading to increased competition for loans and deposits. To strengthen the system, the government has started a two-step process to increase minimum capital requirements.