The inauguration of Adama Barrow as president in The Gambia in January 2017 heralded a new era for the country, ruled previously for 22 years by strongman Yahya Jammeh. Among Barrow’s first actions in office was to reverse Jammeh’s declaration that The Gambia was an Islamic Republic, a return to the separation of state and religion that The Gambia had maintained at independence from Britain in 1965. The move restored the five-day working week and made Friday a working day.
Given that Barrow and his party won an absolute majority in parliamentary elections in April, it appears there is little substantial opposition to the decision. It may, however, have security implications, riling Salafists inside the country and attracting unwanted attention from Islamist militants abroad at a time when Barrow is attempting to rebuild the security services that were for years closely linked to the country’s former leader.
Islam for political ends
Throughout his presidency, Jammeh sought to use Islamism to his political advantage, constructing a mosque on the grounds of State House, cultivating ties with a new generation of Gambian Muslims who had studied in Saudi Arabia and politicising The Gambia’s Supreme Islamic Council, which had previously been a moral but strictly non-political authority.
When Jammeh eventually decreed The Gambia — where 95 percent of the population is Muslim — an Islamic Republic in 2015, it was to win favour with donors in the Middle East at a time when The Gambia was struggling to maintain good relations with the West. He had signed legislation in 2014 that saw homosexuals sentenced to life imprisonment and later withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth), declaring the organisation to be a colonial institution. In an effort to attract new funding, he turned to the Middle East, where wealthy Gulf States were less concerned by his government’s human rights record and anti-Western rhetoric. Proclaiming his country an Islamic Republic was part of a charm offensive that included offering to host the Organisation of Islamic Conference in 2018, which is still scheduled to be held in The Gambia under Barrow.
While The Gambia became an Islamic Republic seemingly overnight, Jammeh also decreed that people would continue to be able to practice their respective religions without any obstruction. He announced there would be no alterations to dress codes for women as a result of the new status of the country — although he later changed his mind on this aspect, before revoking the dress code once again a week later. Meanwhile, the country continued to be a holiday destination for Western tourists who drank alcohol and sunbathed on the beach with little interference.
In practice, Jammeh’s declaration had little real bearing on Gambians’ lives, although for the country’s minority Christians and others there was a real sense of unease. There was a threat that — combined with the absence of employment opportunities and extreme poverty — the move could create an attractive base for Islamist militants. They pointed to Jammeh’s apparently ambivalent comments on Islamic State (IS) and made exaggerated claims that The Gambia could find itself hosting training bases for Islamist terrorists.
Weakened security environment
Barrow’s reversal of Jammeh’s declaration indicates that he expects to have better relations with the West and the countries in The Gambia’s immediate vicinity, rather than relying on the Gulf States for assistance. The new president has already established significantly better ties with Senegal, which surrounds The Gambia, as well as European nations such as France, and announced his intention to rejoin the Commonwealth.
No immediate fallout has arisen from Barrow’s decision to change the status of The Gambia from an Islamic Republic. There have been no reported arrests of Islamic militants, and the country has avoided the Islamist attacks that have struck neighbouring countries. Next-door Senegal has reported numerous arrests of militants linked to Boko Haram, Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but The Gambia has thus far been left untouched.
Barrow’s pledges to open-up his country and increase political liberty and freedom of speech have been met with support by NGOs and Western governments alike. However, while such reforms are laudable, they will take time to implement and there are potential dangers for The Gambia’s weakened security environment.
The president plans to upgrade the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), a secret police force accused of serious human rights abuses during Jammeh’s tenure, and his plans will see the force become a less repressive, more functional organisation. He also plans to reform the military, which played a key role in Jammeh’s government but which remains heavily fragmented and of whose loyalty he is not yet certain. Barrow’s decision in February to replace the head of the security forces, whose fidelity was questionable, will not immediately result in a more effective military. It will take several years to build trust and loyalty in such institutions.
In the meantime, The Gambia lacks a stable, reliable security agency making it more vulnerable to both Islamist terrorism and retaliatory violence from Jammeh loyalists. Barrow appears to have recognised this, requesting a Senegalese military unit be stationed in the country for the foreseeable future to ensure security.
Simultaneously, The Gambia’s decision to leave its “Islamic Republic” moniker behind and turn back toward the West and long-time Western ally Senegal could make the country a potential target for regional Islamic militant groups.
In March 2017, The Gambia announced that it had signed a security agreement with Senegal, aimed at augmenting security in the region as well as preventing trafficking of illegal contraband between the two countries. This kind of cooperation has been lacking for some time. The move is a positive sign for regional development, though it could also attract the attention of militants. Previous alliances in the region that have aimed to prevent Islamic militancy have prompted militant threats of retaliation. For example, AQIM claimed the 2016 attack on Cote d’Ivoire was revenge for the country’s close ties to France, while Senegal has tightened security in response to the same posturing by insurgents. Meanwhile, the arrest in Dakar in April of three Islamist insurgents with links to Boko Haram and IS underscores the potential threat.
The Gambia presents an enticing target for Islamic radicals. The country has long attracted vast numbers of Western tourists, with annual tourist numbers regularly higher than 100,000. While The Gambia’s security apparatus is weakened, its popular beachfront bars and hotels make an obvious soft target for a militant attack, as was the case in the Grand Bassam attack in Cote d’Ivoire.
Added to this, those angered by Jammeh’s removal — including his former security entourage, now marginalised by Barrow — could attempt to assist jihadists for their own ends. A comparable situation could be events in nearby Burkina Faso, where it emerged in local media in March, that the former presidential guard, the Régiment de Sécurité Présidentielle (RSP), were cooperating with Ansar ul-Islam in the country’s north.
In Burkina Faso, the RSP launched a failed coup against the transitional government in September 2015. The unit had been the crutch of former ruler Blaise Compaore, who, like Jammeh, was forced from power after more than 20 years in power. Jammeh currently resides in Equatorial Guinea, which is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, and where he may continue to have the ability to orchestrate violence in The Gambia.
Barrow’s attempts to start a new era of governance, wherein repression is replaced with political and economic freedom, is admirable but cannot be achieved overnight. In the meantime, the restructuring that must take place within the security services will leave the country potentially vulnerable to Islamist violence and retaliatory attacks from Jammeh loyalists. The country’s move away from its “Islamic” title and efforts to foment closer ties with the West and neighboring countries will exacerbate this vulnerability. These moves have undoubtedly already attracted the attention of Islamist radicals, who are likely to see The Gambia as an increasingly relevant target in West Africa.
The author, Jessica Moody is a staffer at Jamestown Foundation which sets as its mission to inform and educate policy makers and the broader community about events and trends in those societies which are strategically or tactically important to the United States. It states on its website, www.jamestown.org that it “is often the only source of information which should be, but is not always, available through official or intelligence channels, especially in regard to Eurasia and terrorism”.