By P.K.Balachandran

The Gambia, a small country in West Africa on the Atlantic coast, is upholding democracy at home and abroad. After emerging from two decades of a harsh dictatorship in 2016-17, the country is building a society and polity based on ethnic and religious harmony and political democracy.

It is also promoting these values in Africa and taking up related causes outside the African continent.  It took up the cause of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, filing a case against that country at the International Court of Justice at The Hague under  the International Genocide Convention. 

In 2016-2017, The Gambia emerged from two decades under the harsh dictatorship of President Yahya Jammeh. Jammeh consistently violated political rights and civil liberties. But he suffered a surprising defeat in the 2016 election at the hands of Adama Barrow.

Barrow put the country firmly on the path of democracy, national reconciliation and equality of all religions. Under him The Gambia  became a torch bearer of democracy in Africa and indeed the world. 

Since 2017, Barrow has been restoring civil and political rights in his country, though not entirely, because the vestiges of the old tribal and political order are entrenched. 

Nonetheless, The Gambia was rated “Partly Free” in the Freedom in the World index of 2024. In the 2023 Freedom House report, The Gambia had scored 50/100 overall. In terms of Political Rights it got 22/40 and in Civil Liberties it got 28/60. It had improved its ranking since 2022.

According the US State Department’s Religious Freedom report, The Gambia’s constitution provides for the freedom of religious choice as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others or the national interest. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, establishment of a state religion, and formation of political parties based on religious affiliation. 

But the Supreme Islamic Council (SIC), a religious body tasked with providing Islamic religious guidance, continues to state that the minority Ahmadiyya Muslim community (approximately 50,000) does not belong to Islam. But the Amadiyyas are allowed to propagate their version of Islam. 

Christians make up approximately 3.5%, the majority of whom are Roman Catholics.  Religious groups that constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is and Hindus. 

The constitution provides for the establishment of Qadi (Sharia law) courts, with judges trained in the Islamic legal tradition in each of the country’s seven regions. But their jurisdiction applies only to marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance where all the involved parties are Muslims. Citizens may choose to use either the civil or Qadi courts.

The criminal code outlaws “insult to religion,” “disturbing religious assemblies,” and “uttering words with the intent to wound religious feelings.” 

Faith-based groups that provide the same social services as Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) must meet the same eligibility criteria as other NGOs. By law, all NGOs are required to register with the NGO Affairs Agency and as charities at the Attorney General’s chambers.

The law does not require public or private schools to include religious instruction in their curricula. But the government, through the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education (MoBSE), provides religious education teachers to public schools to teach an academic course on major world religions. Most public schools offer this course, and most students take the class. 

Some private schools also offer classes in religious education and tolerance and provide an overview of major world religions. The Gambia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on Genocide.

In December 2022, The Gambia hosted an interreligious conference that was attended by religious leaders, government officials, and political actors from 54 African countries to discuss peace and religious tolerance. The conference was organized by the government in partnership with the World Muslim League.

President Barrow reads televised statements during major Islamic and Christian religious holidays in which he stresses his administration’s commitment to promoting religious tolerance.

Intermarriage between Muslims and Christians is common.  Due to cultural and gender norms, however, women are generally required to convert to their husband’s religion and raise all children in the husband’s religion.  It is not uncommon for persons of different faiths to live in the same dwelling.  Observers stated that religious differences are widely accepted among family members and neighbours, with each jointly celebrating the religious events and holidays of the other, the US report says.

Truth Commission

The Gambia established a Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate the crimes that took place under dictatorship and render justice.  The Commission’s chair, Dr. Lamin J. Sise, said in his report in 2021, that it had “identified and recommended for prosecution those most responsible for gross human rights violations and abuses” and that “the individuals involved in perpetrating the violations and abuses must be held accountable for their crimes.”

The United Nations supported The Gambia’s prioritization of transitional justice by giving US$ 30.9 million from the Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) and the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). The PBF financed security sector reform and transitional justice programmes. 

Through this support, UNDP and OHCHR worked together to assist the government in establishing credible transitional justice processes, the US report says.

Rohingya’s Cause 

When virtually all countries, including those calling themselves “democratic” were turning a blind eye to the horrendous hounding of Rohingya Muslims by successive governments of Myanmar, The Gambia filed a case against Myanmar in the International Court of Justice at The Hague under the international Convention on Genocide. 

It is also pursuing the case doggedly and single-handedly. 

In August 2017, the Myanmar military began a campaign of massacres, rape, and arson against the Rohingyas in the Rakhine State in North Myanmar, killing thousands and forcing over one million to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. These atrocities have been thoroughly documented by the United Nations, the media, and human rights groups. 

The Gambia, in its application to the ICJ, alleged that Myanmar’s actions violated various provisions of the Genocide Convention. The ICJ had confirmed that all member states of the convention have a duty to prevent and to punish genocide.

The Gambia’s filing marks the first time that a country without any direct connection to the alleged crimes has used its membership in the Genocide Convention to bring a case before the ICJ. Myanmar has been a party to the Genocide Convention since 1956 and Gambia since 1978.

Of all the countries that should have shown concern over the attack on foreign Muslim students offering Ramadan Namaz at Gujarat University in the Indian city of Ahmedabad last Saturday,  only The Gambia took the initiative to send its diplomats to the university for an on-the-spot study.  

True, representatives of Afghanistan also discussed the matter with officials of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCCR) in New Delhi as the affected Muslim students were recipients of ICCR scholarships. And diplomats from other countries had also made inquiries. But only The Gambia sent a team to the spot in Gujarat.

The Gambia is a Muslim country predominantly, and its intervention in the Gujarat University case could be attributed to that. Even its upholding the case of the Rohingyas could be attributed to religious affinity. But it is not as if only the religious factor which motivated these interventions. They were equally due to its established commitment to democracy, social justice and secularism. 



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