What to expect from Gambia as it becomes an Islamic Republic


President Yahya Jammeh declared Gambia an Islamic Republic on Friday, December 11, at a political rally in Brufut, a village west of Banjul (the capital). The country has been secular up until now, but according to Jammeh, this will promote the country’s religious identity and values, by distancing Gambia from its colonial past. About 95 percent of Gambia’s 1.8 million population is Muslim.

Some suggest Jammeh’s announcement is a ploy to get developmental support and aid from the Arab world, after the European Union temporarily deprived the country of aid last year, based on a poor human rights record and Jammeh’s infamous economic mismanagement. In 2013, he pulled Gambia out of the Commonwealth because he deemed it a neo-colonial institution.

Hamat Bah, the head of the National Reconciliation Party Constitutionally, criticised Jammeh’s declaration which he points out was made without regards for an appropriate referendum. The Islamic body of the country, speaking through its Chairman, Imam Momodou Lamin Touray, is yet to officially acknowledge the president’s announcement, as they await a meeting with him. Thus, technically, Gambia is still a secular state.

The president, who is often referred to as a dictator, has garnered a reputation for making outrageous declarations and decisions throughout his 21-year reign, which began in 1994. For example, in 2007, Jammeh claimed to have an herbal cure for AIDS which was criticised by international medical experts. By 2013, patients who previously switched to the president’s herbal programme returned to the use of the conventional antiretroviral treatment for HIV, based on the discovery of dangerous side-effects of the ‘cure’.

Last month, Jammeh placed a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM), which was met with celebrations in the country. Activists in Gambia, however, were of the opinion that celebrations should be put on hold, as they suggested the president was simply using the announcement as a distraction tactic without real intentions to make the ban official. They cited the arrest of 30 FGM protesters early in December as proof to his inconsistency.

Following his most recent declaration about Gambia’s religious status, Jammeh maintains that the religious rights of Christians in the country will continue to be respected, as well as that of other citizens and non-citizens. He also promises that no dress code would be imposed on non-Muslims.

All of the aforementioned – and more – are expected of an Islamic Republic, but the question is whether Jammeh can be taken for his word on the issue, given his track record. In some ‘Islamic Republics’ in the Arab world, such as Iran, citizens have been denied their basic human rights under oppressive ruling.

This month alone, Jammeh suspended students at the Sukuta Upper and Lower Basic Cycle School and banned them from writing their exams because they failed to welcome him at Brufut, vowed to kill troublemakers in Kartong through mysteriously spiritual means, and controversially blamed women’s tight underwear and general dress style choices as the basis of their infertility. Earlier this year, in June, he reinstated the firing squad mode of execution in the country, and in 2012 executed nine people.

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