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Geographically surrounded by Senegal, The Gambia became independent from Britain in 1965, having been divided for administrative purposes into the colony (city of Banjul and the surrounding area) and the protectorate (remainder of the territory). Five years later a new constitution, approved in a referendum in April 1970 transformed the new nation into a republic. The Prime Minister Dawda Jawara took office in 1965, and became president of the republic from 1970. For the next quarter of a century he was re-elected every five years. However 1981 saw an armed uprising against the government. After heavy fighting in the capital, Banjul, the rebels were defeated with the help of troops from neighbouring Senegal.

This event led to an experiment in federation with Senegal. In 1982 the two nations form the confederation of Senegambia. They aimed to merge military and security forces, and develop a joint foreign policy to work towards economic and monetary union. Joint institutions included a confederal parliament, but the two nations nevertheless maintained their separate independence.

The federal scheme lasted until 1989, when tensions caused The Gambia to withdraw, and the confederation to be dissolved. It was replaced by a looser treaty of friendship and cooperation, agreed in 1991.  In July 1994 Jawara's regime was toppled in a coup led by junior army officers, arising from a riot in the streets of Banjul by soldiers demanding unpaid wages. Jawara escaped to exile in Senegal. An army lieutenant, Yahya Jammeh, become chairman of a provisional military council.

Jammeh stood for election as president in 1996, but the political situation was distorted by a ban on the three political parties active during the Jawara years and on anyone who has held a ministerial post since independence. In these unusual conditions Jammeh defeated two rivals in the presidential election. In 1997 his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation, won 33 of the 49 seats in parliament. Jammeh won both the 2001 and 2006 elections. He is up for re-election in 2011.

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