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The Gambia is one of Africa's smallest countries and unlike many of its West African neighbours it has enjoyed long spells of stability since independence.
President Yahya Jammeh seized power in a bloodless coup in 1994 and has ruled with an iron fist ever since.
Stability has not translated into prosperity. Despite the presence of the Gambia river, which runs through the middle of the country, only one-sixth of the land is arable and poor soil quality has led to the predominance of one crop - peanuts.
Consequently, the country relies on foreign aid to fill gaps in its balance of payments.
President Jammeh wants to turn The Gambia into an oil-producing state. He says this could usher in a "new future". However, the country has yet to strike crude oil.
Tourism is an important source of foreign exchange, as is the money sent home by Gambians living abroad. Most visitors are drawn to the resorts that occupy a stretch of the Atlantic coast.
In 1994 The Gambia's elected government was toppled in a military coup. The country returned to constitutional rule two years later when its military leader ran as a civilian and won a presidential election. But the credibility of the poll was questioned by a group of Commonwealth ministers.
Yahya Jammeh seized power in 1994 as a young army lieutenant and has won three widely criticised multi-party elections since then.
President Jammeh (r) administers his herbal AIDS remedy
He won his third five-year term in September 2006 with more than two-thirds of the votes cast. His main rival, Oussainou Darboe, rejected the result, saying there had been widespread intimidation by local chiefs, governors and members of the security forces.
Commonwealth observers said overt support for Jammeh from public officials during the run-up to the vote may have given him an unfair advantage.
Mr Jammeh raised eyebrows early in 2007 when he claimed that he can cure AIDS. His cure involves a green herbal paste, a bitter yellow liquid and eating bananas and he says his methods produce positive results within days.
The country representative of the United Nations development programme in The Gambia, Fadzai Gwaradzimba, was told to leave the country after she expressed doubts about the president's claims and said the remedy might encourage risky behaviour.
Mr Jammeh's government has been criticised by international rights groups for its attitude to civil liberties, especially freedom of the press.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says there is "absolute intolerance of any form of criticism" in Gambia, with death threats, surveillance and arbitrary night-time arrests the daily lot of journalists "who do not sing the government's praises".
Many Gambians privately disapprove of the iron-fisted nature of his rule, which has seen political opponents and journalists imprisoned without charge, but say he has done much to improve schools, hospitals and roads.
Born in 1965, Yahya Jammeh joined the army in 1984 upon leaving school. He came to power in 1994 when a bloodless military coup ousted the elected president, Dawda Jawara, who had led the country since independence.
Upon taking power he set up bodies to investigate corruption and recover pilfered public funds.
Gambia's private media face severe restrictions, with radio stations and newspapers having to pay large licence fees.
A commission with wide-ranging powers, from issuing licences to jailing journalists, was set up under a 2002 media law. It was seen by critics as a threat to press freedom.
Further legislation introduced in late 2004 provided jail terms for journalists found guilty of libel or sedition. Deyda Hydara, one of the press law's leading critics and the editor of private newspaper The Point, was shot dead days after the law was passed.
"There is an absolute intolerance of any form of criticism," media rights organisation Reporters Without Borders said in its 2008 report.
State-run Radio Gambia broadcasts tightly-controlled news, which is also relayed by private radio stations. Radio France Internationale is available via an FM relay.
The government operates the only national television station.