Germany and The Gambia: Bilateral relations

17.01.2018 - Article

The Gambia is the smallest country on the African mainland in terms of surface area. The former British colony, whose official language is English, consists of a narrow strip of land winding along both sides of the Gambia River. Other than its coastal stretch along the Atlantic Ocean, the country is entirely surrounded by Senegal, whose official language is French. The Federal Republic of Germany has had diplomatic relations with the Gambia since its independence in 1965. What was once a relatively close relationship cooled off increasingly from 1994 to 2016 under the autocratic regime of President Yahya Jammeh. During this period, development cooperation with the Gambia was also suspended. Since Jammeh’s surprising election defeat in December 2016 and the ensuing return to democracy under the newly elected Gambian President, Adama Barrow, relations between the two countries are intensifying once again.

The Gambia is also of increasing interest to German business. German tourism companies in particular are beginning to expand their capacities in anticipation of an appreciable rise in the number of Germans visiting the country. 

Foreign policy

At the turn of 2016/17, the Gambia experienced a surprising political rupture. After over 20 years of autocratic rule, President Yahya Jammeh was unexpectedly voted out of office. That this radical change could mean the peaceful return to a democracy based on the rule of law is in part thanks to political efforts of other countries in the region (primarily Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana) and of regional organisations (the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, and the African Union, AU). By putting immediate pressure on President Jammeh, who initially did not want to hand power over to his elected successor, neighbouring countries and regional organisations managed to facilitate a democratic transition. 

Whereas former President Jammeh had increasingly isolated the Gambia internationally, immediately upon entering office the new President, Adama Barrow, signalled his willingness to play a constructive role in the international community. He released all political prisoners, lifted restrictions on press freedoms and reversed the decision, announced by his predecessor, to withdraw the Gambia from the International Criminal Court. On the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017, President Barrow signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty. 

President Barrow maintains close relations with Senegal. The two countries have agreed upon a close cooperation in the security sector and are seeking to integrate their markets as much as possible. Barrow has made official visits to places such as Paris and Brussels, and has received high-level delegations, inter alia, from the United Kingdom, the European Union and Germany. 

Domestic policy 

When President Jammeh was unexpectedly voted out of office on 1 December 2016 after over 20 years of autocratic rule, a series of tough negotiations convinced him to leave the Gambia. In addition to successful international efforts (see Foreign policy), Gambian civil society also put considerable pressure on the regime to acknowledge the election results by means of the Facebook campaign “Gambia has decided”.

President Barrow owes his election victory (43.3 percent) to a coalition of seven opposition parties. His predecessor Jammeh still managed to win over 39.6 percent of voters.

After taking office, the Barrow Government quickly overturned several of Jammeh’s most recent decisions. For example, the change in the country’s name to an “Islamic Republic” was repealed, and the announced withdrawal from the International Criminal Court was rescinded. 

Human rights 

Before the election in 2016, members of the opposition, journalists and human rights advocates came under heavy pressure. Arbitrary arrests and violation of time limits for indictments and judicial rulings were the order of the day. After the change of government in 2017, however, the situation calmed considerably. 

Almost immediately, the new Government decreed the release of all political prisoners and lifted press censorship. It also plans to abolish the death penalty. In addition, the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission based on the South African model is underway. The Gambian Parliament is also aware of the urgency of dealing with human rights violations; it intends to give political support by establishing its own human rights committee. 

Female genital mutilation, which an estimated 80 percent of the female population has suffered, has been banned since January 2016. Although the Gambian Government and various non-governmental organisations are working on the law’s implementation, the practice is still widespread. The ban will take time to become effective and will require comprehensive awareness campaigns. 

In August 2014, a law was passed criminalising so-called aggravated homosexuality. It punishes with life imprisonment anyone convicted of engaging in homosexual activity with minors, the disabled, wards or HIV-positive individuals. It has, however, not been implemented, and criminal proceedings against three individuals originally charged with aggravated homosexuality have been halted. Other court proceedings for homosexuality are not known. 


The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the Gambian economy grew about 2.5 percent in 2016. Nominal per capita income has risen in recent years. According to IMF estimates, it was approximately 470 US dollars in 2016. 

The tourism sector, the country’s largest source of revenue, has recovered, but it has not yet returned to the level it was at before the 2014 Ebola crisis. The agricultural sector suffers from insufficient mechanisation, poor irrigation systems and a lack of seeds and fertilisers. All sectors of the economy suffer from an insufficient energy supply and constant power cuts. The Government is planning to tap into oil reserves believed to lie off the Gambian coast and to expand the hitherto underdeveloped fishing industry. 

In terms of economic rebuilding, the Gambian Government’s central goals are youth employment, the revitalisation of the struggling agricultural sector, the construction of essential infrastructure and the development of the private sector. The Gambia is working on a National Development Plan to implement these policies. 

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