Toward Secular Democratic Transformation in The Gambia: why we need an explicit statement of secularism in our constitution

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Toward Secular Democratic Transformation in The Gambia: why we need an explicit statement of secularism in our constitution

By Publius maximus

Recently, our national discourse has been dominated by differing opinions on the future of our constitution, and of our country. There are two schools of thought in this debate, and this difference in opinion is rooted in how individuals in each camp understand what our democracy should look like.

There are those among us (exemplified by the Supreme Islamic Council, SIC) who are of the opinion that because many Gambians profess to the Islamic faith, our constitution should have a leaning that is pro-Islam, but nominally tolerant of other religions.

On the other hand, there is a significant minority (lead by those professing the Christian faith, but also includes agnostics and atheists) who have concerns about governmental infringement on their rights to practice their religion (or lack thereof). We recall the unfortunate events barely 4 years ago in December 2015 when dictator Jammehdeclared The Gambia an Islamic Republic without due process of law. Some of the same Islamic and political “leaders” in our mist were silent, and even encouraged that behavior, conferring never ending Islamic titles on a man who is the personification of evil.

As people, we have a propensity to project a sanctimonious aura which is reflected in the way we comport ourselves, the way we dress, and some of our pronouncements. We rarely start things on time (even when the program of events includes an opening prayer to God). This aura is also projected by our leaders who use God’s name to manipulate us.

The Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) argues that the draft constitution as currently written, guarantees religious freedom and that secularism is implied. Why then isn’t it stated explicitly?  The fact that prior versions of the Constitution (of which many agree had many faults) did not include an explicit declaration of secularism is irrelevant as we should not be looking backward, but rather forward. We seem to think that Gambia will never have another Yahya Jammeh, but our way of thinking is not immune to such an event. The CRC is not a political entity and therefore should not be cowered into submission by threats from religious organizations and unpopular sentiments.   Other countries like Senegal have a secular statement in their constitution so why not Gambia?

Now is the time for us as a people to engage in debate of ideas to carve a Gambian identity that will stand the test of time. For instance, what is the United Democratic Party (UDP) position on this subject? What about PDOIS- a party that has projected itself as one that speaks truth to power, or the GDP, or the new kid on the block- the Democratic Alliance? In the current democratic dispensation, it is necessary for each of these entities to state their position because it will inform how significant minorities will vote in the future.

It is exactly the kind of threats spewed by the likes of Ibrahim Hassan Cham of the SIC that warrants an explicit statement of secularism in our constitution. In a statement published in the Fatu Network today, he is quoted as saying “We will inform people of the country to boycott the constitution, and I swear to God we will launch a nationwide campaign against the constitution if it bears ‘secular’ word.” For a member of a Non-governmental organization to make such a bigoted statement, in total disregard of our constitution is a very scary thought for minorities in this country.

This sort of rhetoric must be condemned in the strongest terms by the Attorney General, and by organizations like TANGO, and other opinion leaders like Madi Jobarteh, Sidi Sanneh’s Pa Samba Jow and others- who in many instances have been voices of reason. We must rally against bigotry and hateful speech in our national discourse, to create a safe space for minorities in our mist. The statement by Mr. Cham must not be allowed to go unchallenged.

The Attorney General must “dance ah yard” given the brilliant work Gambia is doing at the international courts for Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. By the same token, we must also protect Christian/Agnostic/Atheist minorities in Gambia by explicitly separating Religion from State.

In the words of Martin Niemöller “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

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