By Madi Jobarteh
What is a republic? The basic dictionary meaning is that it is a state in which power is held by the people and their elected representatives, and which has an elected president rather than a monarch. This definition is more clearly espoused in the 1997 Constitution, under Section 1, which established The Gambia as sovereign republic. The section went further to state that the sovereignty of The Gambia resides in the people, from whom all organs of the government derive their authority and in whose name and on whose welfare and prosperity the powers of the government are exercised in accordance with the constitution.
Therefore, it is clear that sovereign power resides in only the people. That all citizens are equal in that sovereignty and that there is no superior and inferior citizen or majority and minority tribes or religions or groups such that such status will accord any citizen or group any power over others. This means no one citizen or group can claim to determine the manner of governance, policy, development or way of life in this country.
In the constitution a whole chapter is also dedicated to the establishment and protection of human rights and freedoms to which all citizens are equal. Those rights are citizens’ sovereign rights. This chapter did not say some citizens will enjoy more rights than others or some citizens can prevent others from enjoying their right in anyway. Rather, all citizens are equal in rights hence equal sovereignty of all. The constitution places absolute obligation on the state to ensure that these fundamental rights and freedoms are protected without any favour or ill-will or for and against any citizen because of tribe, religion, culture, sex, age, region, or any other status including sexual orientation.
The question that Gambians must therefore confront is what kind of republic do we want? Currently our republic is a democracy. It is governed according to the constitution which was made by citizens to set the guidelines as to how we live in this society. That constitution has established democratic governance as the political system for this society. This means The Gambia is not a theocracy or an oligarchy, a plutocracy, one-party sate, communist or capitalist or an atheistic state. The kind of Gambia we have is what has been spelt out in the constitution.
There is no doubt that in this republic the citizens belong to different religions, mainly Islam and Christianity. Some citizens are female and others male. There are several tribes and regions. There are communities and families. All these individuals and groups have their various values and worldviews according to their beliefs, cultures and other orientations and philosophies based on their education, experience and exposure. That notwithstanding, The Gambia as a nation-state is not governed by any particular religious belief, or the culture of any tribe or the worldview of any single citizen. In other words, The Gambia is governed according to the 1997 Constitution which also accords all citizens to have the fundamental right to practice their faiths and cultures under the protection of that constitution.
The Gambian constitution can be considered as a big road on which all citizens are traveling to their various destinations, dreams, objectives and destinies. What the constitution therefore provides is that while we may all not agree on the same idea or perception but there is space for all to walk on this road without having to step on each other’s toes. Those who wish to pray can pray. Those who wish to drink alcohol can do so. Those who wish not to believe in any religion can also do so. This, is both the beauty and disadvantage of democracy that citizens must contend with if we are going to have a republic in which we can all live in peace, security and justice.
That is to say, we all have equal rights as citizens and no one must attempt to damage, limit, deny or seize another citizen’s rights just because in your view or according to your culture or your religion or personal values you do not consider that right to be worthy of enjoyment.
This point is important to recognise because ultimately it is this point upon which the very foundation and the existence of the republic and the freedom of all citizens stand. Otherwise if at any moment one citizen or group of citizens feels because of their personal values or religion or culture this or that particular right must not be enjoyed by others rest assured that one day another group could also rise up over there to say another right must not be enjoyed. In that case what we will witness is conflict among ourselves leading to self-destruction.
For example, there is no doubt that Islam and Christianity have prohibited many sins. One of those sins is homosexuality. Other sins include adultery, fornication, lying, cheating and corruption in general among others. A believer is required to uphold the precepts of one’s faith such that one would avoid committing any sin. Therefore, the current debate about LGBT has been erroneously made into a religious debate when it is not. This is because no one can deny that homosexuality is a sin in Islam or Christianity. I do not think there is anyone who is seeking to change that fact.
The issue of LGBT is therefore a human rights issue which, if viewed from the point of a democratic republic would be seen to be a non-issue if indeed believers would adhere to the principles of their faith. Let imams and priests preach the faithful to uphold their religious values. But let none of them say no one should enjoy a particular right simply because that is a sin in this or that particular religion. After all, a Muslim or Christian man or woman who decides to be gay must have already known what his or her religion says about that. Therefore, it is between him and God to address. But as a democratic republic the right to a different sexual orientation is just one right among many other rights that some citizens may like or dislike, but none must stop another citizen from enjoying the right.
It is obvious that lot of sins, contrary to Islam and Christianity are committed in this country everyday by men and women who claim to be Muslims and Christians. But the republic cannot create a law to ban those sins so long as they do not infringe on the right of the other person. Usually, where sins are criminalised such as lying or stealing it is because one is under oath in the case of lying or it means one has illegally taken a property that does not legally belong to you hence depriving someone’s right to property and personal liberty in the case of stealing or corruption in general.
This means sins are now left to the believer to commit or avoid based on his or her piety. Otherwise let us declare The Gambia an Islamic Republic or Christian Republic or if possible combine them into an ‘Islamic–Christian Republic of The Gambia’. In that case we can now criminalise adultery, fornication, drinking alcohol, eating pork, lying, stealing, cheating, failure to care for a mother, children, wife or husband or perpetuating injustice, discrimination, backbiting, hypocrisy, arrogance and failure to share with the needy or failure to care for the environment, the old, children, women, orphans and the society at large. Who is for that kind of republic? Raise your hand!