February 26, 2024

Two Divisive Words in Today’s Gambia: “Secular and Secularism”



We can choose to be academic about the meaning of the words “Secular” and “Secularism” but my intention here is to try and address and also simplify the ongoing debate regarding the absence of the word SECULAR from the draft constitution that seems to have outraged many Christians and non-Muslims who rightly or wrongly feel that by not including the word SECULAR in the Draft Constitution by the Constitutional Review Commission of the Gambia it therefore gives them less protection in an overwhelming over 90% Muslim population.

I want to just address 3 Issues:
1. What Does it mean when a Sate is defined as a “Secular State” in a Constitution?

  1. Is there any basis for the Christian Community and non- Muslims generally to get nervous and agitated because of the exclusion of the word “Secular” in the draft Constitution?
  2. Are the religious rights of all Gambians including the non-religious people guaranteed in the current draft Constitution?

To start with, let me sate that there are many countries in the world that clearly include the word SECULAR in the provisions of their Constitutions. A classic case is India which despite its majority Hindu population defines India as a SECULAR state so does Senegal and Turkey who are both predominantly Muslim countries.

When SECULAR is used in the Constitution to define a state, it denotes and signifies that the state in question is officially neutral in matters of religion, supporting neither religion nor irreligion. A secular state consequently chooses to treat all its citizens equally regardless of religion and therefore avoids special and or privilege treatment of its citizenry belonging to a particular religion over other religions/non-religion. The emphasis here is to treat all equally regardless of religion i.e. non-discrimination and not to establish any religion as a state religion.

There are however some who tend to stretch the definition of “secularism” to mean rejection and or exclusion of religious considerations in everything pertaining to the state including not even having religious symbols and or religious prayers in official functions and gathering- but I am sure that this is not the beef that most people who are worried about the exclusion of the word SECULAR in the draft constitution are advocating for.

I believe that one needs to give context to this debate if we are to have a common understanding and avoid the mistrust and simmering resentment that has started brewing regarding the absence of the word SECULAR in the draft constitution. Let us also be very mindful that the two biggest causes of conflict in Africa today is discrimination and or perceived discrimination based on tribe/ethnicity and or religion. Even people who are regarded as sensible and educated can easily be unreasonable and take sides when they feel that their tribe and or religion is threatened and moreso if they happen to be minorities.

Declaring the Gambia as an Islamic State by the former President Yahya Jammeh in his political rally in Burfut sometime in 2015 with the tacit support of many Gambians including some members of the Supreme Islamic Council, Banjul Muslim Elders and many more and followed by disparaging remarks about Christianity by President Jammeh in subsequent public utterances created a dent and mistrust between many Christians against some Muslims and if you talk to many Christians today in private one quickly discovers that the wounds are still raw and fresh with many still wrongly or rightly believing that there is an agenda in some quarters to make the Gambia an Islamic state with the ultimate aim of subjugating the Christian minority to a position of second class citizen.

Sometime last year and early this year, many audio clips were in circulation purporting to come from an Islamic Scholar one Dr Jah who put up a spirited argument against including the word “Secular” in the new Constitution which he argued was un-Islamic. He also insinuated in the audio clips that there were sinister groups with anti-religious agendas trying to influence members of the Constitutional Review Commission to include the word “secular” in the new constitution. It is reported that he also conducted a forum to drum up his “anti-secular campaign”. So soon thereafter, it appeared that many joined the band wagon of anti-secularism using various arguments to justify their stance and others even went as far as saying that since Muslims are in the majority and pay most taxes, the word “secularism” therefore undermines their power as Muslims etc., etc.

The debate on secularism gradually went viral with many people taking positions depending on their interpretation and understanding of the word and or their possible sinister hidden agendas. The sum total of all this is that “Secular and secularism” has today become divisive and contentious.


The point is that the current draft constitution (without containing the word secular) at Section 47 guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion to every Gambian and Section 151(2) states that the National Assembly shall not pass a law declaring the country a one party state or to establish any religion as a state religion.

These two provisions are among the entrenched clauses of the draft constitution which cannot be easily changed by the National Assembly without subjecting it to a referendum which requires at least 50% of those eligible to vote must vote in that referendum and at least 75% of those that voted must agree to the passing of that law.

Going by these two provisions, it will be very difficult to pass a law establishing any religion as a state religion in the Gambia. Having said that, Section 100(2) of the current 1997 Constitution has similar provisions but that did not stop former President Yahya Jammeh publicly declaring the Gambia an Islamic state in 2015 in the Town of Burfut with the tacit and public support of many despite the fact that it was unconstitutional to do so in that form and manner.

The morale of the story I guess is that laws can be mere words if we as a people are not sincere and ready to safeguard and defend its provisions and especially when the institutions that are supposed to be the guardian of the rule of law are dysfunctional. I believe herein lies the problem and the ensuing mistrust.

I believe that our religious leaders and religious scholars across the spectrum should play a pivotal role in preaching peace, justice, fairness, unity and respect for diversity. Our little Gambia needs healing especially after 22 years when the country was polarised on tribal and religious lines and unfortunately with support of many religious leaders. Regrettably, while we continued to build more mosques and churches in the last 22 years and regularly go through our daily religious ritual prayers many were tortured, raped and killed – an open secret only being corroborated by the ongoing revelations of the TRRC.

Let us try and unite our people and not divide them; Let us teach our children to be not only religious but to be compassionate human beings; Let us not put fear and or instil insecurity in the hearts and minds of our minorities and let us not try to monopolise Allah/God in our respective religions. As some hold the belief that their religion is the only truth others incidentally are equally convinced that theirs is the only truth.

I believe that we need a healthy debate on the Secular and many other related matters. True as I have alluded to in my recent writing that freedom of religion is guaranteed in the new draft Constitution at Section 47 and Sec 151(2) (b) forbids the National Assembly from passing a law establishing any religion as a state religion- but the question is – is that enough???? By that question I mean is there any sufficient guarantee that special privileges cannot still be granted and or given to any one religion to the exclusion and or disadvantage of another religion or religious group??? Is Section 47 and Section 151(2) (b) adequate. Let me elaborate here:    For example if Mr Jacob Daniel Njie becomes President of the Republic of the Gambia and for some reasons decided that to help his Christian community he will use state funds to build 100 churches, put all priests and pastors on salaries provide for them free vehicles and housing etc. can anyone challenge him based on Sec 47 and or 151(2) (b)??? Remember he has not stopped anyone from practicing their respective religions nor has he established a state religion. SO YOU GET MY DRIFT?       Adding the word SECULAR in Constitutions is usually to guarantee non preferential treatment to anyone religious group or groupings. If in doubt perhaps include “Secular” and define it especially for those who believe that it may have anti-religious connotations The debate continues.

Emmanuel Daniel Joof is Gambian Lawyer and current  Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Gambia. He chaired the Faraba Banta Commission of Inquiry.  He holds Masters degree in International Law (LLM) 1991 – University of Nottingham, England, UK, Barrister At Law (BL) Practising License Certificate –Council of Legal Education Sierra Leone Law School 1997, Bachelor of Laws with Honours (LLB-Hons) 1989- Anglia University (then Essex Institute) Essex, England, UK. Joof has more than 25 years of experience   in Law, focusing on Human Rights, Rule of Law, Programme/Project Management.



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