- Historical Dictionary of The Gambia (fifth edition) by David Perfect
Once touted as an oasis of democracy and good governance during its first 30 years of independence from the United Kingdom on 18 February 1965, The Gambia has [End Page 87] experienced authoritarian rule and human rights violations since Yahya Jammeh came to power in 1994. David Perfect, a researcher at the University of Chester in the United Kingdom, contends that Jammeh has crushed all "challenges posed by the opposition political parties and has managed to avoid being overthrown by force," which has allowed him to remain the undisputed ruler of The Gambia (p. 21). This antipodal experience of Gambian history is well-captured in this edition of the Historical Dictionary of The Gambia. The book provides the most up-to-date reference material on people, places, and events in this small West African country, from antiquity to the present. Its goal is to provide a dependable source of facts and figures about Gambian history. Unfortunately, even before the book rolled off the press certain entries already need to be updated. Entries such as Momodou Sabally (p. 326), Aboubacarr Senghor (p. 392), and Political Parties (pp. 343-344) already require an update. This is a common hazard when writing an historical dictionary.
Perfect, who co-authored the fourth edition of the Historical Dictionary of The Gambia (2008) with Arnold Hughes, a long-time scholar at the University of Birmingham who served as the director of Perfect's Ph.D. dissertation, has been researching The Gambia since the 1980s. An intrepid and enterprising scholar, Perfect is able to make sense of the characters who color the country's history. His intrepidness is revealed when he attempts to list all of government ministers who have occupied important positions since 1994. In the Justice Ministry, there have been "no fewer than" seventeen ministers in the past twenty years (p. 253). [End Page 88]
The Historical Dictionary of The Gambia fills a yawning gap in Gambian studies. Ordinarily, The Gambia, the nation with the smallest territorial footprint in Africa, is the least studied and written about of the four former British colonies in West Africa. Until 1975, the only comprehensive scholarly study of The Gambia was J. M. Gray's History of The Gambia, which had been published in 1940. Fortunately, for students of Gambian history, the first Historical Dictionary of The Gambia was unveiled in 1975. Harry A. Gailey, a historian at San Jose State University, authored the first two editions of the Historical Dictionary of the Gambia in 1975 and 1987, respectively. The third edition, published in 1999, was co-authored by Gailey and Hughes. Since publishing the fourth edition with Hughes in 2008. Perfect has added approximately 280 new entries to the dictionary. Especially useful in this new edition is the detailed and extended bibliography at the end of the book, which traces the growth and development of Gambian studies since the 1960s. The absence of a local university until 2000, meant that scholarship by Gambians was subdued. Yet, from a quick glance at the bibliography, it is clear that Gambians are beginning to study and write about their own country.
The dictionary gives a good glimpse of the hope and despair of the country, especially since the army coup of 1994 that brought Jammeh to power. Contemporary events, such as the executions of nine people, including Tabara Samba in 2012 (p. 140), the numerous coup attempts against Jammeh's regime, the assassination of the respected journalist Deyda Hydara (pp. 205-06), and the disappearance (and presumed death) of journalist Ebrima Manneh (p. 285) give [End Page 89] a dystopian outlook for this small country of under 2 million inhabitants. Yet, the entries on consistent human rights defenders such as Isatou Touray (p. 417), political leaders such as Halifa Sallah (pp. 274-275), whose lengthy entry is fully deserved considering his multifarious roles as political leader, journalist, and defender of the rights of Gambians, the remarkable increase in school enrollment for girls since 1994 (p. 131), and the new University of The...