The Draft Constitution and the debate about secularity

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By D.A. Jawo

The draft Constitution recently released by the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) has generally received quite favourable comments from a cross section of Gambians. Most of those who have had the opportunity to browse through the draft have given it some thumbs up as a progressive piece of document.

Of course, like every such document, there are bound to be some provisions and clauses that may have fallen short of some people’s expectations, with others even calling for certain things to be added or expunged from the draft.

However, the loudest debate centres around the disappointment by some people, mainly members of the Christian community, on the apparent failure of the CRC to emphasize the secularity of the state. Some people even went on to give example of the prominence given to Sharia in Chapter X, including the possible creation of a Sharia High Court as an apparent indication of biasness in favour of Islam. This is despite the recent clarification made by the Chairman of the CRC, Justice Cherno Jallow reassuring Christians and other minority groups that Clause 151 of the Draft Constitution in sub-section (2) states that “The National Assembly shall not pass a Bill – (a) to establish a one-party state;” However, not many of the proponents of the secularity issue were convinced by his reassurance.

“If the CRC can give such prominence to Sharia in the Constitution, what is the problem of emphasizing the secularity of the state to at least re-assure us the minorities that never again will another leader declare this country an Islamic Republic like ex-President Jammeh did in 2015,” said a prominent member of the Christian community. He said the attempt by Justice Jallow to justify the failure to include ‘Secular’ in the Constitution was not enough to re-assure them. “I just cannot see any problem with the CRC simply putting that little re-assuring word in the document to keep our minds at rest,” he added.

Like Justice Jallow said in the release, “’Secularism’ has never been included in any of Gambia’s previous constitutions” and that no one ever complained. “This is not a religious issue. This is not about Islam versus Christianity or Christianity versus Islam. This is about ensuring that we maintain the peace, cohesion and harmony amongst our people,” Justice Jallow added.

While some people dismiss the insistence by some members of the Christian community for the inclusion of the word ‘Secular’ in the new Constitution as an unnecessary diversion from the real issues, but a closer scrutiny of the trend in the country seems to give some credence to the position of the Christian community on the issue.

In addition to the unilateral decision by ex-President Jammeh in 2015 to declare The Gambia an Islamic Republic and the construction of mosques in public institutions including the State House, there are also several other signs that this country had been steadily drifting towards Islamic fundamentalism. We have seen, for instance, the proliferation of Islamic schools in the country as well as the veil and other modes of Islamic dress, virtually being an integral part of the school uniform all over the country, including public schools and no visible effort has been made by the authorities to curb that vestige of the Jammeh regime. It is even a surprise to many people that the nurses in our public hospitals and health facilities have had the veil as part of their uniform.

We have also seen how the Supreme Islamic Council and the Hajj Commission being accorded some semblance of state institutions, while it is rumoured that the draft budget has allowances budgeted for some Imams. It is however very likely that with the plans to host the next Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Summit here in 2022, more efforts would be made by the authorities to put our Islamic character in the limelight as a means to impress the rich Arab financiers of the summit.

Therefore, there is some justification in the Christian community’s uneasiness about the failure of the CRC to emphasize in the draft Constitution the secularity of the state. It is hard to see any reason why the word “Secular’ cannot just be inserted in the draft, if not for anything but to reassure the non-Muslims that despite the trend, there is no plan to transform the country into an Islamic state through the back door. Someone has even suggested that instead of inserting the word “Secular’ in Clause 1 (1) of Chapter I as demanded by some people, it could quiet conveniently be inserted in Clause 1 (2) The Republic is a multi-party democratic ‘and Secular’ State founded on respect for the rule of law and the national values and principles of governance enshrined in this Constitution. Obviously, that is in no way going to diminish the sanctity of the Constitution as a national legal document.