Muslims constitute over 95 percent of the population. Christians of different denominations account for most of the remainder. Gambians officially observe the holidays of both religions and practice religious tolerance.
More than 80 percent of Gambians live in rural villages, although more and more young people come to the capital in search of work and education. While urban migration, development projects, and modernization are bringing more and more Gambians into contact with Western habits and values, the traditional emphasis on the extended family, as well as indigenous forms of dress and celebration, remain integral parts of everyday life.
The Gambia was once part of the Empire of Ghana and the Kingdom of the Songhais. The first written accounts of the region come from records of Arab traders in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. Arab traders established the trans-Saharan trade route for slaves, gold, and ivory. In the 15th century, the Portuguese took over this trade using maritime routes. At that time, The Gambia was part of the Kingdom of Mali.
In 1588, the claimant to the Portuguese throne, Antonio, Prior of Crato, sold exclusive trade rights on The Gambia River to English merchants; this grant was confirmed by letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I. In 1618, James I granted a charter to a British company for trade with The Gambia and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
During the late 17th century and throughout the 18th, England and France struggled continuously for political and commercial supremacy in the regions of the Senegal and Gambia rivers. The 1783 Treaty of Versailles gave Great Britain possession of The Gambia, but the French retained an enclave at Albreda on the north bank of the river (ceded to the United Kingdom in 1857).
As many as 3 million slaves may have been taken from the region during the 3 centuries that the trade operated. It is not known how many were taken by Arab traders. Most of those taken were sold to Europeans by other Africans; some were prisoners of inter-tribal wars, some were sold because of unpaid debts, while others were kidnapped. Slaves were initially sent to Europe to work as servants until the market for labor expanded in the West Indies and North America in the 18th century. In 1807, slave trading was abolished throughout the British empire, and the British tried unsuccessfully to end the slave traffic in The Gambia. They established the military post of Bathurst (now Banjul) in 1816. In the ensuing years, Banjul was at times under the jurisdiction of the governor general in Sierra Leone. In 1888, The Gambia became a separate entity again.
An 1889 agreement with France established the present boundaries, and The Gambia became a British Crown Colony, divided for administrative purposes into the colony (city of Banjul and the surrounding area) and the protectorate (remainder of the territory). The Gambia received its own executive and legislative councils in 1901 and gradually progressed toward self-government. A 1906 ordinance abolished slavery.
During World War II, Gambian troops fought with the Allies in Burma, and Banjul served as an air stop for the US Army Air Corps and a port of call for allied naval convoys. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt stopped overnight in Banjul en route to and from the Casablanca Conference in 1943, marking the first visit to the African continent by an American president in office.
After World War II, the pace of constitutional advance quickened, and following general elections in 1962, full internal self-government was granted in 1963.
The Gambia achieved independence on February 18, 1965, as a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. Shortly thereafter, the government proposed conversion from a monarchy to a republic with an elected president replacing the British monarch as chief of state. The proposal failed to receive the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution, but the results won widespread attention abroad as testimony to The Gambia's observance of secret balloting, honest elections, and civil rights and liberties. On April 24, 1970, The Gambia became a republic following a majority-approved referendum.
Until a military coup in July 1994, The Gambia was led by President Dawda Kairaba Jawara, who wasre-elected five times. The relative stability of the Jawara era was broken first in a violent coup attempt in 1981. The coup was led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang, who, on two occasions, had unsuccessfully sought election to parliament. After a week of violence which left severalhundred dead, Jawara, in London when the attack began, appealed to Senegal for help. Senegalese troops defeated the rebel force.
In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Senegal and The Gambia signed the 1982 Treaty of Confederation. The result, the Senegambia Confederation, aimed eventually to combine the armed forces of the two nations and unify economies and currencies. The Gambia withdrew from the confederation in 1989.
In July 1994, the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC) seized power in a military coup d'etat. The AFPRC deposed the democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara. Captain Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, chairman of the AFPRC, became head of state.
The AFPRC has announced a transition schedule for return to democratic, civilian government before the end of 1996. It has denied its intention to stay in power and, although delayed, has proceeded with the transition timetable. Presidential elections are scheduled for September 11, 1996.
Local government in The Gambia varies. Banjul has an elected town council. Five rural divisions exist, each with a council containing a majority of elected members. Each council has its own treasury and is responsible for local government services. The tribal chiefs retain traditional powers authorized by customary law.
The Gambia maintains an embassy at 1155 15th Street, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005. Tel. 202-785-1399. Its UN Mission is located at 820 2nd Avenue, Suite 900-C , New York, NY 10017. Tel. 212-949-6640.
Agriculture accounts for 23 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 75 percent of the labor force. Within agriculture, peanut production accounts for 5.3 percent of GDP, other crops 8.3 percent, livestock 4.4 percent, fishing 1.8 percent and forestry 0.5 percent. Industry accounts for 12 percent of GDP and forestry .5 percent. Manufacturing accounts for 6 percent of the industry share of GDP. The limited amount of manufacturing is primarily agriculturally-based (e.g., peanut processing, bakeries, a brewery, and a tannery). Other manufacturing activities include soap, soft drinks, and clothing. Services account for the remaining 19 percent of GDP.
In FY 1995, the U.K. was The Gambia's major export market, accounting for 26 percent total, followed by Senegal with 22 percent and France with 21 percent. The U.K. was the major source of imports, accounting for 14 percent followed by Belgium, the Netherlands and Cote D'Ivoire. The Gambia reports 3 percent of its exports going to and 5 percent of its imports coming from the United States.
In November 1995, Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council Chairman Jammeh announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with Libya. The country has also established relations with Taiwan.
The Gambia takes an active interest in international --especially African and Arab-- affairs, although its representation abroad is limited. As member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), The Gambia has played an active role in directing that organization's efforts to resolve the Liberian civil war. It has participated actively in the process of negotiating a peace agreement and has contributed troops to the community's cease-fire monitoring group (ECOMOG).
The US Embassy in The Gambia is in Fajara on Pipeline Road (Kairaba Avenue). (Tel.  392856; Fax  392475). The Peace Corps office (Tel.  392466) is on Pipeline Road (Kairaba Avenue), one city block from the Embassy.