The Gambia: a tiny nation with huge problems
THE GAMBIA’S undiversified economy relies on tourism and agriculture, which were severely damaged by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and delayed summer rains last year. The nation’s biggest problem, though, is its deepening international isolation, caused by a repressive and unpredictable regime, writes World Review Expert Teresa Pinto.
Although the Gambia itself recorded no cases of Ebola, the presence of the contagious disease in its immediate neighbours produced a 60 per cent plunge in the country’s tourist trade in the 2013/2014 winter season, according to United Nations data. The impact was severe, considering that tourism accounts for 40 per cent of the Gambia’s economic output.
The agricultural sector – which accounts for another 22 per cent of gross domestic product – suffered severe damage from drought. That caused local shortages and a significant rise in food insecurity for households.
Land scarcity, outdated techniques and lack of access to agricultural inputs compromise farm productivity and increase the sector’s vulnerability to climate change and erratic rains.
These structural flaws have been aggravated, in the past two years, by high levels of public spending and fiscal indiscipline, as the government’s budget deficit ballooned to 8.3 per cent of GDP last year from 2.1 per cent in 2012.
Loss-making public utilities have been a huge drain on the budget. As the IMF notes, the situation has become unsustainable, as interest payments – mostly on short-maturity Treasury bills – consume almost a quarter of government revenue.
Reacting to the deteriorating trade and fiscal balance, the government implemented a number of structural reforms and austerity measures.
In May 2015, however, much of this progress was nullified by President Yahya Jammeh’s issuance of an exchange-rate directive overvaluing the Gambian dalasi by about 30 per cent. This move, intended to curb the ballooning debt and inflation, had a crippling effect on the country’s exporters (peanut growers took a double hit, since they rely on imported chemical fertilisers) and on household incomes, which are heavily dependent on remittances from Gambians who work abroad.
President Jammeh, a 29-year-old army officer at the time, took power after a bloodless coup in 1994. Since then, he has ruled the Gambia with an iron fist, creating a climate of unpredictability and terror. Among the international community, Mr Jammeh’s stated ambition to rule for ‘a billion years,’ his claims to have discovered a herbal cure for HIV and his threats to slit the throats of homosexuals have positioned him somewhere between a bizarre character and a serious threat to human rights, but never as a reliable partner. Adhering to no official ideology, President Jammeh’s rule has been marked by a capricious mixture of Islam, traditional spiritualism, self-interest and strong anti-Western feelings.
Although the Gambian constitution recognises the principle of separation of powers, in practice the president has absolute control over the judiciary. To break up potential conspiracies, Mr Jammeh regularly purges senior army officers and reshuffles his cabinet, making it hard to speak of policy continuity. He has survived eight coup attempts over the past 20 years.
Recent reports by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Human Rights Watch have denounced the deteriorating situation in the Gambia, marked by arbitrary arrests, torture, kidnappings and extra-judicial killings targeting journalists, students and others considered opposed to the regime. Most of the repression is carried out by the country’s National Intelligence Agency, police and a paramilitary unit called the Jungulers – under the direct control of the President’s Office.