Almost two years after it was shaken out of its somnolence by a brief but bloody rebellion, this tiny West African nation is still holding onto its democratic traditions, albeit, observers say, with a slightly tighter grip.
Elections were held here in May 1982, and President Dawda Jawara easily won another five-year term. The 5 w0093 ----- r a BC-06/06/83-GAMBIA 2takes 06-06 0001 Gambia's Democracy Has a Tighter Grip By Leon Dash Washington Post Foreign Service
BANJUL, Gambia--Almost two years after it was shaken out of its somnolence by a brief but bloody rebellion, this tiny West African nation is still holding onto its democratic traditions, albeit, observers say, with a slightly tighter grip.
Elections were held here in May 1982, and President Dawda Jawara easily won another five-year term. The 58-year-old Scottish-trained veterinarian has led this former British colony since it gained independence 18 years ago.
Some here call it a testament to the country's commitment to a multiparty, parliamentary democracy that Jawara's opponent, Sheriff Mustapha Dibba, was able to run his campaign from jail, winning 25 percent of the 203,000 votes cast while awaiting a trial in which he was later acquitted of treason.
Dibba has since kept a low profile, friends say. On the surface anyway, life in this sliver of a country with its population of 650,000, surrounded on three sides by Senegal and on the fourth by the Atlantic Ocean, has resumed its tranquil ways, despite a slump in its peanut-dependent economy. "Things are moping along just as they were in the precoup period," said a western diplomat.
Yet there are signs that the Jawara government is still a little shaken by the rebellion that broke the country's calm on July 30, 1981, only to be put down a week later with the help of 1,500 troops from Senegal. A "state of emergency," imposed after the failed coup attempt, still continues, and last April authorities used the emergency laws to arrest a Gambian reporter who was distributing 3,000 copies of a newspaper that satirized Jawara.
The journalist, Ngaing Thomas, was released after two nights in jail, but the offending newspapers--an English-language version of the Senegalese Le Politicien--were confiscated. The reason, given by State House General Secretary Ayo Langley, the nation's third-ranking official, was that "it is not within African traditions to be ridiculing your elders and heads of state."
"The government feels it needs emergency powers to deal with emergencies," said Langley in a recent interview in which he limited himself mostly to questions involving numbers and technical data. Langley said he preferred to "sidestep" what he perceived as sensitive, political issues.
Thomas' arrest was viewed by some observers as a sign of the government's edginess. "The coup attempt really shook up the elite," noted a western diplomat. "I think they are going to be a little less democratic and not take any chances."
Some observers say that Jawara has taken a tougher line on government corruption recently, another byproduct, they say, of the rebellion. "Since the rebellion and Jawara's election, corruption has become a big issue here," said a western diplomat. A Gambian source, who for the first time in three years asked not be identified to avoid attention being drawn to him, agreed.
"A lot of the charges the rebels made against the government were exaggerated and patently false," said the Gambian source, "but the one about corruption was true and it stung. They seem to have taken heed of that problem for the moment."
Although Langley insists that corruption is being pursued no more vigorously now than it was in the past, officials here are expected to watch closely the upcoming trial of Ebou Taal, a former government spokesman and top official in the Foreign Ministry. Taal, who was in charge of a $13 million relief fund of donations made after the rebellion, has been charged with misappropriating some of the funds for his personal use.
Little noticed outside of Africa, where coups and rebellions are commonplace, Gambia's week-long rebellion was noteworthy both for the length of the fighting with invading Senegalese troops and the high number of casualties, mostly civilian. Officially, 500 people died in the fighting, but unofficial estimates put the total closer to 2,000 killed.
The coup attempt was led by 26-year-old Kukoi Samba Sanyang, a self-styled Marxist whose Gambian Socialist Revolutionary Party had been banned by Jawara's government following the 1980 assassination of the director of the country's 900-man police force. (Gambia has no army.) Using the opportunity of Jawara's trip to London for Prince Charles' wedding, the rebels seized about 130 hostages, including one of the president's two wives (which he is allowed as a Moslem) and eight of his children.
The rebellion was initially greeted with enthusiasm by the poorer residents of Banjul, a city of 40,000. But that initial response quickly soured as Sanyang's ragtag army of several hundred civilians, mutinous policemen and criminals freed from prison began looting, setting buildings on fire and using their guns to settle old scores.
Senegalese troops, called in under a mutual defense pact between the two countries, put down the rebellion and reinstalled Jawara as president. The hostages were freed unharmed. There are still 200 Senegalese soldiers in Gambia now and all of Jawara's bodyguards are Senegalese government security agents.
Of 1,182 persons arrested after the rebellion was put down, 815 were freed without trial, according to the western diplomat. Another 111 were given varying jail sentences, 78 were acquitted, including two men who had their death sentences overturned by Gambia's appeals court in late May, 33 have been sentenced to death and 145 are presently in the process of being tried.
Dibba, a former vice president and leader of the National Convention Party, was accused of implication in the uprising. But he presented evidence at his trial that although visited twice by Sanyang, he had refused pleadings to join the rebellion.
The ostensible causes of the rebellion--Gambia's economic deterioration, Jawara's ossified style of government and unpunished corruption among top government officials--were not even issues in the 1982 elections, Gambian political observers say.
Rather, they said the campaign turned on personalities, in particular on the perception of Jawara as a safe leader in insecure times, a man who could restore a sense of order.
"Jawara did a lot better than I thought he could," said one of his critics, who declined to be identified. "After the chaos of the rebellion, people were more concerned about security than the price of bread or who was getting kickbacks on government contracts."
Gambia, a poor country where the annual per capita income is $250, is still suffering from hard economic times. The production of peanuts, the country's major source of export revenue, has fallen from a high of about 130,000 tons per year in the early 1970s to 45,000 tons in the 1980s. With only a $60 million in revenues, Gambia spends $12 million a year to import rice, a food staple for its people.
In assessing the rebellion, Langley noted that most of its participants were young people who could continue to pose a problem. Langley said he did not think Gambia will be able to meet the needs of its growing class of unemployed school graduates in the near future.
"We have very limited opportunities here and the Gambian youths are frustrated," Langley said. "They embrace change for change's sake at any cost."