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Sunday, July 21, 2024

Gambia Christian Council position paper on the Draft Constitution

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The Gambian Christian Council (GCC) is the legally established body which represents all Christians in the Gambia. It is an umbrella body that unites and overseas the affairs of all churches in the Gambia, and has over 100 members from the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches. Since the process of consultation on the draft constitution began, we have organised several workshops for the Christian community to review the various submissions of the CRC. The views in this position paper therefore represent the collective position of the entire Christian Community in the Gambia.

Christianity and Islam have lived side by side in mutual coexistence until this present day. It is an established national pride in the Gambia that across the country, families often have members of the two faiths living together and embracing each other’s faiths based on personal conviction. Moreover, individuals marry people from opposite faiths without any conflicts whatsoever within their families or communities. This, for generations, has been the legacy of religious tolerance, coexistence, and relationship in the Smiling Coast of The Gambia. The imposition therefore in 2015 by the dictatorial and despotic regime of Yahya Jammeh of a state religion on all Gambians was foreign to the Gambian culture and was destabilizing to the long-established mindset of tolerance, interdependence, and mutual coexistence that the Gambia knew.

The position of the Christian Community therefore comes against a backdrop of the progressive erosion of the harmonious and respectful relationship that has existed between Muslims and Christians in the Gambia. As a minority group we have experienced a catalogue of persecution and unfair treatment under President Jammeh’s regime some of which still continues to this present day, of growing instances of marginalization, inequality and unfair treatment the Christian Community has experienced in this nation.

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It is for these reasons that the Gambia Christian Council is demanding that the CRC honors its mandate as enshrined in Section 6 (2) (VI) of the Constitutional Review Commission Act 2017, which directs the CRC to draft a new Constitution which shall safeguard and promote “The Gambia’s continued existence as a secular State in which all faiths are treated equally and encouraged to foster national cohesion and unity.”

The Gambia Christian Council Position on The Omission of Secular and Related Matters in the Draft Constitution
1. If you may recall, the Gambia Christian Council {GCC} on 15 December 2018 submitted its contribution to the CRC regarding the provisions it wanted incorporated into the new constitution and also suggested amendments and additions to the provisions of the current 1997 Constitution of The Gambia which it wanted reflected in the draft.

2. The GCC acknowledges the fact that Section 47 of the draft constitution maintains freedom of conscience which interalia includes freedom of religion a similar to Section 25 of the current 1997 Constitution.

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3. The GCC also acknowledges the fact that Section 151(2) (b) of the draft constitution forbids the National Assembly from establishing any religion as a state religion similar to the current Section 100(2) (b) of the 1997 Constitution.

4. We also understand that both proposed provisions {Sections 47 and 151(2)(b)} aforementioned are among the entrenched clauses of the draft constitution which cannot be easily amended by the National Assembly without subjecting it to a referendum. Going by these two provisions, it appears that it will be very difficult to pass a law establishing any religion as a state religion in The Gambia.

5. We however also recognised and hasten to add that both Sections 25 and 100(2) (b) of the current 1997 Constitution are entrenched and are similar to the provisions contained in the said draft.

6. The position of the GCC is that both the proposed provisions on religious freedoms {Section 47 and Section 151(2) (b)} and the current provisions {Section 25 and 100(2)(b)} are similar and the same. The GCC further states that despite similar provisions guaranteeing religious freedoms in the current constitution and with similar entrench clauses, the Gambia was in 2015 declared an Islamic Republic by the former President to the dismay and detriment of Christians and non-Muslims. Shortly thereafter, non-Muslim females working in the civil service were forced to wear veils in accordance with the dictates of Sharia law. During that trying period for Christians, the National Assembly did not challenge such illegal and unconstitutional move and to the contrary, the former President’s move was supported by the Supreme Islamic Council and the Banjul Muslim of Elders.

7. The GCC has during its submission to the CRC in December of 2018 clearly advocated for the inclusion of the word “Secular” in the new constitution as it is our firm belief and conviction that the state should be officially neutral in matters of religion without giving any preferential treatment to any one religion or religious groups and consequently, should treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion i.e. non-discrimination which goes beyond establishing any religion as a state religion.

8. The GCC therefore submits that Section 151(2) is not sufficient and therefore proposes that Section 151(2) be expanded to read as follows;
“The National Assembly shall not pass a Bill;
To establish any religion as a state religion; or prohibit the free exercise of religion”
We believe that this addresses the sometimes twisted definition some have attributed to the word secular to mean i.e. that it prohibits the free practice of religion.

9. Granted that the 1997 Constitution does not contain the word “Secular” the GCC does not however believe that this is a good reason why it should not be included in the new constitution as many new provisions that were not present in the 1997 Constitution have been included in the draft constitution with Sharia given prominence in many sections of the Constitution which the GCC believes is an indication of intent to Islamise The Gambia.

10. Guaranteeing freedom to practice one’s religion, and not establishing a religion as a state religion does not necessarily mean that the state (if not explicitly stated in its secular nature) will not give preferential treatment to one religion over another as the GCC have witnessed over the years.

11. The last 7 years have been a testing period for Gambian Christians ranging from encroaching on their land demarcated as cemetery for burials, wearing of veils in Christian run schools, declaring the Gambia an Islamic State, disparaging remarks about Christianity from the former head of state, the threats to close down the Christian Cemetery in Banjul, the invitation of the Islamic Scholar Dr Zakir Naik who publicly made critical remarks about Christianity and many more.

12. The GCC is concerned that the CRC may have been unduly influenced into omitting the word “Secular” in the proposed draft following the many audio clips that were circulated and purporting to come from an Islamic Scholar who put up a forceful argument against including the word “Secular” in the new Constitution which he argued was un-Islamic with insinuations that there were sinister groups with anti-religious agendas trying to influence members of the Constitutional Review Commission to include the word “Secular” to undermine Muslims etc.

13. The GCC is aware that there are some who are attributing the word “Secular” to mean irreligious, rejection and exclusion of religious considerations in everything pertaining to the state including not even having public religious prayers and/or religious symbols. This is certainly not what the GCC is advocating for.

14. The GCC therefore proposes that the word “Secular” be added to the preamble of the Constitution and that Section 1 should also read that “The Gambia is a sovereign secular State”. The GCC further proposes that for the avoidance of doubt and to clear the air of misunderstanding, “Secular” can be defined in the Interpretation section of the Constitution.

15. The GCC also proposes that Section 36 of the draft Constitution which list the fundamental rights and freedom that may not be limited by the Constitution includes Section 47 (1) (2) and (3) of the draft Constitution which gives inter-alia the right to freedom of religion and association. It is our firm belief that this additional provision will address the perverse and warped interpretation that some are attributing to the word “Secular” to mean i.e. that it prohibits the free practice of religion.

16. The GCC is of the firm belief and conviction that every Gambian and especially religious leaders should always endeavour to preach, justice, fairness, unity and respect for diversity. Our little Gambia needs healing especially after 22 years when the country was polarised on tribal and religious lines. One of the main causes of conflicts around the world especially in Africa centres around religious and ethnic fights.

17. Let us try and unite our people and not divide them and teach our children to be compassionate human beings and let us not implant fear and or insecurity in the hearts and minds of our minorities.

18. Our neighbour SENEGAL sharing the same and similar culture, language, religious demographic etc. clearly states that Senegal is Secular and yet it has not aroused any negative debate.
I repeat the provision of the Senegalese Constitution below:
Article 1
The Republic of Senegal shall be SECULAR, DEMOCRATIC and SOCIAL. It shall ensure equality before the law for all citizens, without distinction as to origin, race, sex or religion. It shall respect all faiths. The official language of the Republic of Senegal shall be French. The national languages shall be Diola, Malinke, Poular, Serer, Soninke and Wolof and any other national language which has been codified.

19. The GCC is proposing that a provision be created in the new Constitution which provides that religious institutions and communities shall have the right to develop without hindrance and shall not be subject to direct supervision by the state. They shall also regulate and administer their affairs autonomously.

20. Finally, the GCC urges the CRC to take into consideration Section 6(2) (VI) of the Constitutional Review Commission Act 2017 which directs the CRC when carrying out its functions to ensure:
“The Gambia’s continued existence as a secular State in which all faiths are treated equally and encouraged to foster national cohesion and unity.”
In addition to the matters aforesaid, The Gambia Christian Council further recommends that the below should be reflected in the new Constitution:
a. That “Secular” be inserted in the preamble of the draft constitution and that Section 1 should also include the word “Secular” after the word “Sovereign” akin to Article 1 of the Senegalese Constitution aforementioned;
b. That all religions be respected and treated equally;
c. That Sharia be only applicable to Muslims and where a Christian is affected in matters of inheritance, marriage, divorce and adoption, Civil law be applicable;
d. That the proposed Sharia High Court be removed, and the Cadi Courts be maintained;
e. That public holidays be specified to include Christmas, Boxing day, Good Friday Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and all other holiday observed by the Muslims;
f. That no state funds be used to enhance any particular religion in government institutions;
g. That the portfolio of the Ministry of Religious Affairs be scrapped and instead an inter faith committee be created to advise the President on religious affairs;
h. That Section 44 (2) (c) relating the “uttering of abusive or threatening speech or writing that causes feelings of ill-will, disaffection or hostility “ be expunged;
i. That Section 44 (d) (i) should include “ethnic or religious incitement”
j. That the full age of woman relating to the right to marry under section 52 (1) be 18 years and clearly defined in the interpretation clause;
k. That Section 66 under the heading Gender balance and fair representation of marginalized groups” include women, person with disabilities, youth and minority groups;
l. That Section 67 (4) be expunged;
m. That Section 82 (g) to include women ie relating percentage in the National Assembly;
n. That Section 92 (1) (c) to Replaced with a court of competent jurisdiction and not by a Commission of Enquiry;
o. That the qualifications provided under Section 109 for the President be applicable to the Vice-President, the Chief Justice and the Speaker of the National assembly;
p. That Section 174 (b) to reflect not less than four, and not more than twelve other judges only i.e. only should be inserted; and
q. Section 258 5 (b) on land holding by non-citizens be expunged because there are state institutions that regulate land in The Gambia and that let all persons living in The Gambia be qualified to own land.

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