All Hail the “New” Republic

In a continent richly blessed with a repertoire of military dictatorships, past and present, Africans are used to hearing military decrees announced by sit-tight leaders, preceded by a lengthy list of military titles. This custom has now transcended the military domain, as pseudo-democratic rulers have made the issuance of decrees a pastime. One of such leaders has just given the world its newest Islamic Republic.

gambia_coat of arms
Image Credit: Hugo Carrico

“His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa, President of the Islamic Republic of The Gambia, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Chief Custodian of the Sacred Constitution of The Gambia, and Minister of Defence”

If the embellishment above is not a sign of an eccentric personality, then psychology textbooks have to be rewritten. The Gambia’s president is quite special. Very few world leaders can hold claim to 72% of votes in an election. As leader of the smallest country on the African mainland, with a population of about 1.8 million people, it is his job to protect the interests of his people. This is what he thinks he has done via his latest declaration.

“In line with the country’s religious identity and values, I proclaim Gambia as an Islamic State”. President Jammeh surprised the rest of the world with this declaration at the end of a political rally. According to him, “Gambia cannot continue the colonial legacy”. Forget that The Gambia is constitutionally a secular country. There apparently has never been a better time to crush the yoke of colonialism. Is anti-colonialism the real reason or is Jammeh being driven by a different agenda?

Colonialism! The bane of Africa—one over-quoted reason for all of Africa’s problems. Should a country that gained independence in 1965 still blame its colonial past for its problems after fifty years? Jammeh is just throwing dust in the eyes of Gambians. Gambia’s problem is not the British exploitation of its territory before independence. Its problem is the same problem faced by numerous African countries: poor leadership.

President Jammeh has been in power since 1994. A child born the day he gained power will now be a 21-year-old adult. In this time, he has succeeded in increasing the suffering of his people. The Gambia’s main source of income is agriculture, mostly from the export of peanuts. This unreliable income is heavily supported by foreign aid from several donor countries. However, Jammeh’s reputation for human rights abuses has shut the doors of several donors.

Seeing the reduction in donor aids, his declaration of an Islamic Republic is simply a saving card to seek support from rich Islamic countries. It’s a case of trying to become friends with a person by publicly making his enemy your enemy. Several Arab countries harbour bitter mistrust towards the United Kingdom (read: “colonialists”), and Jammeh is trying to play into that narrative. Make the Arabs see you as a victim, make them see you as one of them—a devout Muslim state, and then hope that in the midst of a global petrodollar scarcity, they will consider you for some generous handouts. Let’s hope that Jammeh’s plan works for The Gambia. However, this declaration throws up some questions.

Firstly, is Jammeh not just exchanging one “colonizer” for another one? Nothing goes for nothing in diplomatic circles. Except for a country like Nigeria that happily offers help for absolute free, most countries see foreign aid as investments, whether implicitly or explicitly. These aids are also seen as a means of purchasing influence. Jammeh may have been “infuriated” with meddling by his Western donors, but if the Saudis or any other Arab country offers him money, when payback time reaches, he’ll have to play by their rules. It’s simple—you can’t accept aid money and then complain of colonialism.

Secondly, will the rights of Christians and other religious and non-religious groups be protected in Jammeh’s Islamic Republic? It’s easy to say, “We will be an Islamic state that would respect the rights of all citizens and non-citizens”. However, Jammeh’s antecedents tell a different story. He is famous for repressing the rights of his citizens. Now that he has the backing of Islamic jurisprudence, what is the guarantee that things will not get worse? Will The Gambia become like Pakistan where blasphemy is a criminal offence worthy of death? Will the restrictions seen in other Islamic states be enforced in The Gambia? Jammeh cannot guarantee these rights if he really wants aid from the Middle East.

Thirdly, is there any increased risk of Jammeh’s territory becoming a haven for Islamist fundamentalists cum terror groups? Although it is clear that not all Muslim-majority states are breeding grounds for terrorism, a link can easily be established between poverty prevalence and increased proclivity to sign up for terror classes. When a country has almost fifty percent of its citizens estimated to live in extreme poverty, adding the “Islamic ingredient” to the mix makes a combustible situation. The cover of an Islamic Republic will permit activities that would have been frowned upon in a secular state. It is no surprise that virtually all Islamic terror groups thrive in countries where poverty is widespread, and where the line between the state and religion is blurry. Let’s hope that The Gambia will be an exception.

President Jammeh is likely basking in his declaration. He has slammed the door on the meddlesome colonial past, and has united 90% of his people under the banner of the crescent. If you have 72% of the vote and 90% of the people as part of the state’s religion, you are truly a favoured man. The world awaits Jammeh’s next move. After claiming to possess mystic powers to cure AIDS and Asthma, there’s nothing he can do or say that will shock anyone. Long live the Islamic Republic of The Gambia.

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