The Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest state, achieved independence on February 18, 1965 as a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth. On April 24, 1970, The Gambia became a republic following a majority-approved referendum after decades of colonialism.
This synopsis highlights three constitutions: Independence Constitution of 1965; the Republican Constitution of 1970; and the current 1997 Constitution.
Independence Constitution of 1965
The Gambia became an independent Commonwealth nation on February 18, 1965 under a Constitution much influenced by the British in content and form. It became a constitutional monarchy within the Commonwealth. The idea of self-rule in itself is view as a great move from monarchial rule to democratic rule where the people govern themselves. In the Gambian context at that time, the political leadership was more concerned at asserting its autonomy from Britain, the colonial power.
As a negotiated instrument, the Independence Constitution was not perfect. It maintained the existing form of government headed by Her Majesty through a representative in the name of the Governor-General. Even though there was a democratically elected parliament and government since the attainment of independence in 1965, formal power was still vested outside those institutions in a distant monarch with a representative in the person of the Governor-General.
Republican Constitution of 1970
How independent and sovereign was The Gambia in 1965 when the executive authority was vested in her majesty? Hence, for the political leaders and for The Gambia to achieve total independence and sovereignty the constitution needed to be amended. Thus, after independence, Gambian political leaders were concerned with a presidential government as opposed to having the executive authority vested in the queen. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the then ruling party, had expressed its wish to have a republican form of government with an executive president. In proposing the first republican constitution in April 1965, two months after independence, Jawara charted the motives for the proposed constitutional change. According to him, Gambians were unable to differentiate the powers of the Governor General and that of the real powers possessed by the Prime Minister, therefore, the head of government needed extensive powers of presidency to carry out his functions. Finally, constitutional change will reduce administrative cost in the sense that there will be only one executive head.
The PPP, with majority in Parliament, easily achieved the required two-third votes necessary for the bill to be passed into referendum. At this point opposition to the bill increased as the leading opposition leader PS Njie and his party vigorously opposed the bill on the basis that republicanism will “give too much power to one man”, which was dangerous for the country’s multiparty democracy. He managed to rally strong support among other parties, the main trade union, Gambia Workers’ Union (GWU) and the populace and eventually the “No” votes triumphed over the “Yes” votes.
Still determined to gain republican status, in 1969 Jawara and the PPP leadership reintroduced the new republican bill in parliament. This time learning from their earlier mistake of not countering the “arguments of the oppositions” (couple with a stronger zeal and a more favorable electoral register, the PPP gained the two-thirds majority in parliament and a referendum was called for the following year in April. The Prime Minister’s argument was that his government was not seeking more power but rather it sought the completion of The Gambia’s political evolution and independence.”
The referendum was eventually passed making The Gambia a Republican State. The 1970 Constitution was merely a continuation of the traditions of the independence constitution. The only major change was that the present prime minister will assume the presidency replacing the queen/governor-general in exercising executive powers over the jurisdiction of the republic with his powers “strengthened”. (Kairaba, 2009)
The relative stability of the Jawara era was broken first by a violent and bloody coup d’etat attempt in 1981, led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who on two occasions had unsuccessfully sought election to parliament. After a week of violence, which left several hundred dead, Jawara, who was in London when the attack began, appealed to Senegal for help. Senegalese troops defeated the rebel force and restored the Jawara government to power. In the aftermath of the attempted coup d’état, Senegal and The Gambia signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. This led to the creation of the Senegambia Confederation, aimed eventually to integrate the two sovereign countries into one political and economic union with cooperation in many areas. The confederation came to an end in 1989. Former President Jawara stated in his book, Kairaba, that:
[o]n Wednesday August  1989, President Diouf went on national television and told his people that the Confederation was not working. He said the meetings of the Council of Ministers, the Confederal Parliament and other formal meetings were a waste of time if no real progress was being made in ironing out the real issues that hampered the integration of the two states… Therefore, the confederal treaty was being suspended and Senegalese troops were being withdrawn.
The conception and adoption of the 1997 Constitution
The 1994 coup d’état which led to the suspension of the 1970 Constitution, brought an end to the longest surviving multiparty democracy in Africa. (Saine, 2009) Consequently, on August 8, 1996, a referendum was held leading to the adoption of the second republican constitution. The new constitution was drafted, and a constitutional referendum took place on August 8 1996. This was followed by a presidential election held in September 1996. The ruling junta, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), transformed itself into an official political party – the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) – to support Jammeh’s campaign for the presidency. Jammeh emerged as the winner of the 1996 election, subsequently ushering in civilian rule and becoming The Gambia’s second elected President in 31 years of independence. Subsequently, the Constitution entered into force on January 16, 1997.
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