Christian Council Outline Reasons why They Could Not Support the 2020 Draft Constitution


By Nelson Manneh

The Gambia Christian Council has yesterday outlined some of the reasons why they could not support the 2020 Draft Constitution in its final format.

The National Assembly of the Gambia has recently voted against 2020 Draft Constitution that was tabled before them by the Minister of Justices.

CRC was established through an Act of the National Assembly to review the 1997 Constitution and come up with a draft new Constitution that will meet the test of time.

The 1997 Constitution has suffered several amendments and therefore an Act of the National Assembly was passed to empower the CRC to come up with a new draft. The new draft Constitution has 20 Chapters, 3 Chapters less than 1997 Constitution. It has 315 Clauses and a revised Preamble that embodies all the elements considered fundamental including an emphasis on respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms.
The new draft Constitution also puts emphasis on good governance, separation of powers, sustainable environment and the equitable distribution and use of resources and equality before the Law.

During the second phase of their consultations with Gambians, Commissioners of the CRC faced challenges regarding some Sections and Clauses in the new draft.

The Gambia Christian Council (GCC) deems it necessary for the new constitution to bear the word ‘Secular’ in its preamble, to secure all faiths. Pastors and other Christian leaders follow the CRC from one meeting ground to another, for the CRC to include the word ‘Secular’ in the new Constitution; that this is the only way all the faiths can be secured in the country.

Here is the statement delivered by Bishop James Allen Yaw Odico on behalf of the Gambia Christian Council.

ln the wake of the recent “No” vote on the 2020 Draft Constitution by the National Assembly by a significant margin of votes, there has been a lot of discussion on the results and the Draft itself. lt is uncertain what the fate of the Constitution is, and where the constitutional review process is.

The fears and concerns of the varied voices raised to point out what has been identified as serious deficiencies embodied in such a vital national document continue to be a source of grave anxiety, especially to marginalized groups like the Christian community of The Gambia.

The Gambia Christian Council is extremely concerned by several provisions in the Draft Constitution and the fact that our feedback on these areas was not considered. We believe that our plight in key public policy matters continue to be somewhat of an afterthought, if at all
it is taken into account.

Like many, the Gambia Christian Council was surprised at the result of the vote. The Council had expected that the draft constitution would secure the required votes to allow it to be considered by the Human Rights and Constitutional Matters Committee of the National
Assembly for further deliberations.

The Council, therefore, sent a letter and report to the said Committee to make our concerns clear and to request that same be considered. The Council had been clear that the unnamed 2020 Draft Constitution did not sufficiently protect the religious rights of the Christian Community in that:

1. Section 36 allows an unprecedented restricting of the fundamental human rights of Gambians. We are concerned that Christians can under the Constitution one day find their religious freedoms being restricted and this is not a risk we are prepared to take. Moreover section 37 is inconsistent with the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as it does not mention all the absolute fundamental human rights that should not be encroached upon by a State party like The Gambia.

2. Section 49(3) by using “may not” rather than “shall not” does not unequivocally prevent a Christian or for that matter a citizen from being denied access to any institution, employment or facility, or the enjoyment of any right, because of their belief or religion.

3. Whilst it is reassuring that sections 88 and 153 states that the President and National Assembly cannot establish a state religion, this provision is completely undermined by the reinforcement and expansion of a Religious Legal System that is designed to operate at par with the common Law System in the draft constitution. Furthermore, the draft constitution is silent on the state being separated from all religious affairs to avoid the abuses of the Jammeh regime in any future government.

A new religious Legal System would be imposed on all citizens of The Gambia irrespective of their religion as under section the Sharia High Courts were given “Original Jurisdiction” to hear and determine all matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and endowment amongst people who are subjected to Sharia in that regard? The two-fold implication is that; a Christian who is married to a Muslim or the Christian wife and children of a deceased Muslim would be subjected to Sharia Law.

The majority of Gambian citizen both Christians and Muslims would not be able to seek legal redress under the Common Law system on cases related to family matters as they are able to do under the 1997 constitution which specifically provides an opt-out for such persons.

Under section 191, Saharia competence for judges up to the Courts has been mandated for any case that involves a Muslim in the areas of marriage, divorce, inheritance and endowments, whilst at the same time, the requirement for Common Law competence has been completely removed from the Judiciary sector.

2020 Draft Constitution has left the door opened for the laws of The Gambia to be amended without a referendum under section 10 since section 10 is not one of the entrenched clauses of the Draft Constitution.

The possibility therefore exists under the said draft constitution for Sharia Law which currently only covers family law to be expanded to also include penal r criminal law in the future hence the interfaith submission to the CRC on the 23rd March asked for the draft constitution to spell out very clearly that; “Sharia Law is understood as Islamic Law as has been practised in the Gambia for centuries” and not the new versions that are being imported and that “It therefore means civil law, this does not extend to the Penal Laws.” This was not done.

The above-explained issues were some of the reasons why the Gambia Christian Council could not support the 2020 Draft Constitution in its final format.

Constructive efforts deployed to draw the attention of the Constitutional Review Commissioners to the above sadly fell on deaf ears. The deafening silence of several very highly placed officials and our fellow Gambian brothers and sisters to the concerns we have repeatedly raised in our petition to the President, in our courtesy calls to government officials including the Chief Justice and former Attorney General, on radio and TV, and in our press conference and press releases has been read as a message that “CHRISTIAN RIGHTS DO NOT MATTER”.

We are concerned that the proposals of specific interest groups were adopted whilst the genuine concerns of others were ignored. Whilst strengthening key areas under the Executive and Legislative arms of government, under the Judiciary a divisive legal framework was introduced that would completely undermine the Common Law system of law that has served the Gambian people since 1970 and destroy the peaceful and harmonious relationships that have existed in the Gambia between Christians and Muslims up to date. Contrary to the express provisions of Section 6 of the CRC Act 2017 provisions were
introduced which;
a) Restrict the fundamental human rights of Gambians,
b) fail to safeguard The Gambia’s continued existence as a secular State but rather a State where Sharia Law has been amplified and in which some faiths may be unfairly treated,
c) discouraging national cohesion and unity and rather encouraging religious intolerance.

The Gambia has gone into the annals of history because of the former Minister of Justice’s courage to fight and protect the rights of a Muslim minority group, the Rohingyas, in Myanmar. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect our government to manifest that same spirit of love and concerns for minority rights in our beloved nation The Gambia.

As Christians, our hope for our homeland is that we will build a Gambia where there is a place for every Gambian irrespective of his or her belief or ethnolinguistic background. Our desire is that any new Constitution would safeguard the future of all Gambians and protect the rights of
all citizens. lt remains our steadfast view that religion must never divide us, we are therefore committed to preserving our heritage of harmonious interfaith relationships among our diverse people.

We would use this opportunity to sincerely thank all those who championed the cause of The Gambia’s common good during this process including our Muslim allies who joined our interfaith campaign. As we continue to strive for peace and harmony in our nation The Gambia, may we hold firm to the solemn words of our national anthem: ‘Let justice guide our action towards the common good? And join our diverse people to prove man’s brotherhood.’

We reiterate the importance of the need and duty to continue to safeguard and nurture social cohesion, without which the fabric, with which our diverse people are knit, will disintegrate. The spirit of ‘mbolo’ (unity) or ‘neka bena’ (unity of purpose) should not be lost on the altar of self-serving personal motives but must firmly remain a tool in our hands that will seek to remind us always of this valuable precept of solidarity- that we will always remain stronger together.

Whilst the next steps are yet to be determined, we trust that any future Constitution building process the nation will embark upon will be built on the lessons learnt from the failure of the current process. The Gambia Christian Council advises that a team of competent, objective, unbiased professionals from the various interest groups are set up to review especially those areas where there has been a deadlock or opposing views. This should happen together with the main stakeholders in a bid to find a win-win solution and a Constitution that will build-up
our nation and not divide us.