By Louise Jobe
The Gambian Christian Council (GCC), yesterday presented a position paper on the draft Constitution.
The position paper indicated that “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 their partners from the opposite faiths without any conflicts whatsoever within their families or communities. This has been the legacy of religious tolerance, coexistence and relationship in the Smiling Coast of The Gambia, for generations.”
Central in the position paper is the secularity of the country.
The paper acknowledges the fact that Section 47 of the draft Constitution maintains freedom of conscience which inter-alia includes freedom of religion similar to Section 25 of the current 1997 Constitution;
It 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. It further acknowledges that both sections in the draft are entrenched, meaning that they cannot be amended without subjecting them 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;
The paper further argues that these two provisions are similar and the same as in the current 1997 Constitution.
It however submitted 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 Elders”
The paper notes that GCC has the 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.
“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 which some have attributed to the word secular to mean; that is it prohibits the free practice of religion.”
Regarding preferential treatment based on religion, the paper argued that,
“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 the other as the GCC has witnessed over the years.
“The last 7 years has 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 and the invitation of the Islamic Scholar Dr. Zakir Naik who publicly made critical remarks about Christianity and many more.”
For these and other reasons, the GCC proposes that the word “Secular” be added to the preamble of the draft and for Section 1 to read: “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;
The paper cited Senegal as a country which inserted ‘secular’ in its constitution.
“Our neighbour SENEGAL sharing the same and similar culture, language, religious demographic etc. clearly states that Senegal is a ‘Secular’ state and yet it has not aroused any negative debate. I repeat the provision of the Senegalese Constitution below:
‘‘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;
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 that:
“The Gambia’s continued existence as a ‘Secular’ State in which all faiths are treated equally and encouraged to foster national cohesion and unity.”
Recommendations by the GCC
a) That “Secular” be inserted in the preamble of the draft constitution and that Section 1should 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” to 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 be 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..