By Omar Bah
The chairperson of the Constitutional Review Commission, Justice Cherno Sulayman Jallow has explained the commission’s decision not to include ‘secularism’ in the new draft constitution which has sparked a huge controversy, especially on social media.
Justice Jallow said ‘secularism’ has never been included in any of Gambia’s previous constitutions.
“This is not a religious issue. This is not about Islam vs Christianity or Christianity vs Islam. This is about ensuring that we maintain the peace, cohesion and harmony amongst our people. If you look at the 1970 constitution, section (1) clearly spelt out that The Gambia is a Sovereign Republic. Period. That’s what it said and the 1997 constitution, the original draft which was eventually adopted at a referendum stipulated the same provision in section (1). No issues were raised,” he observed.
He said in 2001 an attempt was made and that an amendment was taken by the then Attorney General to the National Assembly to insert the word ‘secular’ “so that section (1) will read: The Gambia is a Sovereign Secular State”.
“But that provision is an entrenched clause in the 1997 constitution. What that means is once it goes through the National Assembly it must be subjected to a referendum. That was never done. It was challenged by Kemesseng Jammeh before the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court stroke out the amendment as unconstitutional, because it had not followed the constitutional process right to its logical conclusion. So, effectively what that means in legal terms is that that amendment never forms part of the laws of this country”.
Jallow said although the provision on secularism is printed in the 1997 constitution, as a draft person, he feels baffled because “when the revision of the laws was carried out in 2009 it should have been removed because the Supreme Court had declared it unconstitutional. What is not law you dispense with. You only reproduce what is law. So, I say this to make the point that the word secular has never ever constitutionally been part of any of our constitutions. So, we don’t understand why it has been an issue at this stage”.
“The other thing I find most unfortunate is that so much emphasis is being placed on clause 1 but there is for me an even more important clause in the context of what is being debated at the moment which is clause 151 of the draft constitution. It makes it very clear that the National Assembly cannot pass any bill to declare or to establish any religion as a state religion whether it is Islam, Christian or whatever it is. The National Assembly is barred from doing anything like that and effectively that is what you find in the current constitution in section 102 (b). That is a characteristic of a secular state. But you don’t have to say it,” he said.
He added: “People are obviously entitled to their opinion and we definitely respect that, but it will be most unfortunate if this is blown out of proportion along religious lines because that could potentially bring religious tensions in this country which we don’t need. I will definitely plead with that section of our community that feels aggrieved by the non-use of the word to look at the totality of the draft constitution and not fan this whole subject on the platform of religion. I think that would be very unfortunate because our communities have always lived in harmony together”.