/ 17 December 2015

Scepticism greets the Gambia’s Islamic republic status

President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia.
President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia.

The Gambia has been declared an Islamic republic by President Yahya Jammeh, who said he wanted to further distance the West African state from its colonial past.

The tiny, formerly secular country – named after the river from which British ships are said to have fired cannonballs to fix its borders – joins the ranks of other officially Islamic republics such as Iran and Afghanistan.

“In line with the country’s religious identity and values, I proclaim Gambia as an Islamic state,” said Jammeh on state television. “As Muslims are the majority in the country, Gambia cannot afford to continue the colonial legacy.”

The Gambia’s population of 1.8-million is 95% Muslim. Jammeh said citizens of other faiths would still be able to practise and that no dress code would be enforced.

Jammeh, an animated orator who has earned the reputation for making surprise declarations over the course of his 21-year presidency, pulled the Gambia out of the Commonwealth in 2013, calling it neocolonial. In 2007 he claimed to have found a herbal cure for Aids.

In November the president announced he would outlaw female genital mutilation after international pressure that included a campaign by the Guardian. But activists say continued international pressure is needed for the president to pass his declaration into law.

In May Jammeh warned the African Union that he would help disassemble and “break into pieces” that body if it did not fulfil the dream of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, of freeing the continent from the bonds of colonialism.

The Gambia, he said, would stand alone against Europe if need be, if other African countries were too afraid of losing European aid to take decisive action. He did not detail what decisive action he had in mind.

The European Union temporarily withheld aid money in 2014 over the Gambia’s poor human rights record. The Gambia, whose main industries are agriculture and tourism, ranks 165 out of 187 countries on the United Nations development index.

Blogger Sidi Sanneh, an economist and a former foreign minister who is now a dissident based in the United States, said: “Starved of development funds because of his deplorable human rights record and economic mismanagement, Jammeh is looking towards the Arab world as substitute for and source of development aid.”

Opposition politicians, a Gambian diaspora group, activists and several religious leaders in the Gambia – including Islamic leaders – either condemned the declaration outright or expressed doubt that it would be constitutional. – © Guardian News & Media 2015