Problems in the new Gambia with ethnic divisions

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Problems in the new Gambia with ethnic divisions

Politics is dividing into ethnic groups in Gambia. There could be many problems for the new government. James Courtright reports


Jammeh’s face is everywhere – here it’s on the 200 Dalasi note (USD$4).

‘We are very happy now that we have democracy,’ said Ismailia Bah, a taxi driver in Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Then he became more serious, ‘but tribalism has also come to Gambia, and tribalism is evil.’

The last president Yahya Jammeh left Gambia last year. The new president, Adama Barrow, promised to bring everyone together after 22 years of forceful control by the government. Now, a year later, new political and ethnic divisions are making problems for the new president’s plans.

Gambia is a small West African country with less than 2 million people. Jammeh ruled with force: he made political opponents disappear, tortured journalists and even ordered the murder of people from his family. The people were afraid.

Then in 2016 Adama Barrow won the election. He wants to change things and create a democratic, richer society.

Abubacarr Ba Tambadou, Gambian Minister of Justice, says that they do not want the same kind of government as before. So they need to investigate how it got so bad. They investigated Jammeh’s money problems and punished people for a murder. They will get many people around the country to speak about abuse by Jammeh, and make a report.

But, in the last year, there have been more ethnic political problems.


Meeting about transitional justice at the University of The Gambia.

Gambia does not have a history of ethnic conflict. The recent problems started when Jammeh gave speeches to his supporters in June 2016. He talked about Mandinkas as ‘enemies and foreigners’ and said he would kill them.

Jammeh comes from the Foni region. 3 communities, the Jola, Mandinka, and Fula have lived together there and married each other for many years. But now they are angry. Jammeh is a Jola and he had a balanced government from the three groups. But, after his speeches, many of the Mandinka stopped supporting him.

The day after the election, when Barrow and the coalition won, Jammeh agreed. But a week later, he refused to hand over power, so there was a time of ‘impasse’ (uncertainty).


There was lot of tension in the Foni region. Houses were covered with political colors – green for Jammeh and the APRC, yellow for Barrow and the coalition’s largest party, the United Democratic Party (UDP) – from the presidential election. There were many political tee-shirts, political arguments and fights in the markets. Some people stopped going to the traditional ceremonies of the other groups.

The political parties divided according to ethnicity – Jolas with the APRC and Mandinkas with the UDP.

When Jammeh left the country in late January, it was better. But the ethnic conflict had started.

There was violence. The day after the election, there was fighting on the road in Sibanor, with people throwing stones and damaging many houses.

In July protestors from Jammeh’s hometown Kanilai were shot as they approached Senegalese peacekeepers. One person died and many others were wounded.

In January 2018, APRC supporters returning from a rally were attacked by youth supporters of the UDP in Busumbala. Four people had to go to hospital and there was a lot of damage to property. For the first time the political violence was not in Foni.

There have also been problems with the government. They didn’t have enough Jolas in the coalition government. And Jola soldiers said they lost their jobs because they were Jola. This could be because the new government does not have experience.

Last weekend there was an Inter-party Youth Political Dialogue at a hotel outside the capital. People from all the big political parties went and talked about understanding and living together in peace before the local government elections next month. At the end, they gave each other their flag colors and held hands in solidarity for peace.

Recently president Barrow went to Sibanor to speak to the leaders of the village. He said he wants peace and said there must not be any violence. People were happy that the president went there.

But it needs more than a meeting in a hotel and a visit to solve the problems of last year.

It is not too late to help. Maybe the future of Gambia depends on getting the region involved, including all the communities.

James Courtright is a journalist in Dakar, Senegal.