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Sunday, October 1, 2023

NHRC chairman says Gambia is a ‘secular democracy’

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By Olimatou Coker

The chairman of the National Human Rights Commission has said the growth of hate speech and derogatory remarks against political opponents, religious groups, tribes, and other minorities is threatening Gambia’s newfound freedom and democratic governance.

Addressing a graduation and prize-giving ceremony at Saint Augustine’s Senior Secondary, Emmanuel Joof, an international human rights lawyer, said Gambia is a secular democracy where tolerance, co-existence, and respect of other tribes, ethnicities, religions, genders, or other statuses are preserved in “our laws and respected by our past generations”.

“Our secular democracy does not mean that our laws are anti-religion and/or encourage immorality or that they do not protect the rights of people to practice their religion, as some were putting it. The meaning of our secular democracy as espoused in our 1997 Constitution is that it gives people the right to practice the religion of their choice; that the state should not interfere in the religious and non-religious beliefs and practices of people; that one cannot declare a state religion; that one cannot establish a party based on religion or tribe; and that the state should not give preferential treatment to any religion or religious group or vice versa by discriminating against any religion or religious group,” he said.

He added that a good number of Gambians who live in the greater Banjul area and the Kombos have mixed parentage.

“Parents practicing different religions, siblings belonging to different religions, and uncles and aunties from all tribes. Unfortunately, the peaceful harmony of co-existence and living together is gradually being eroded by a very vocal, albeit minority group, who have been making negative utterances, derogatory statements, and innuendos against people belonging to certain tribes, religions, genders, or other statuses, which have the potential to sow seeds of disunity in our communities. We should all guard against hate speech and statements made to fuel division in our community and country,” Joof said.

He said that though The Gambia has been spared the menace of tribal, religious, and sectarian conflict despite the 22 years of dictatorship under Yahya Jammeh and notwithstanding the progress made in “our democratic strides since 2017, one issue that continues to threaten our newfound freedoms is the growth of hate speech and derogatory remarks made against certain groups”.

Chairman Joof added: “One would have hoped that our main objective, preoccupation, and direction should now focus more on how to develop ourselves educationally and economically and invest in creating a better society where people’s rights are respected and protected; a society that values hard work, integrity, and accountability and rewards excellence.”

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