The Gambia Christian Council (GCC) issued a press release at a Press Conference held on 6th October 2020 reacting to the National Assembly’s decision to reject the Draft Constitution. The GCC have noted that their concerns “sadly fell on deaf ears” when they tried to engage the Constitutional Review Commission. After engaging several highly placed officials including a petition to the President the deafening silence was “read as a message that CHRISTIAN RIGHTS DO NOT MATTER”.
The Christian body is now calling for the Gambia to learn from the challenges faced during the failed Constitutional Building process. They are also calling on Government to institute “a team of competent, objective, unbiased professionals” to review the Constitution. Below is the press release.
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In 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. It 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 continues to be a source of grave anxiety, especially to marginalised 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 were not considered. We believe that our plight in key public policy matters continues 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 unamended 2020 Draft Constitution did not sufficiently protect the religious rights of the Christian Community in that:
- 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 of 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.
- Section 49(3) by using “may not” rather than “shall not” does not unequivocally prevent a Christian or for that matter citizens from being denied access to any institution, employment or facility, or the enjoyment of any right, because of their belief or religion.
- 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 2020 Constitution. Furthermore, the Draft Constitution is silent on the State being separate 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 188, the Shariah High Courts were given original jurisdiction” to hear and determine all matters relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and endowment (waqt) amongst people who are subject to Shari’ah 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 subject to Shari’ah Law.
- The majority of Gambian citizens (both Christians and Muslims) would not be able to seek legal redress under the Common Law System on cases relating 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, Shariah competence for judges up to the Superior 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 section.
- The 2020 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 Shari’ah Law which currently only covers family law to be expanded to also include penal or 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: “Shariah 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 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
- restrict the fundamental human rights of Gambians,
- fail to safeguard The Gambia’s continued existence as a secular State but rather a State where Shariah Law has been amplified and in which some faiths may be unfairly treated
- 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. It 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 be 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.
Signed Bishop James Allen Yaw Odico
Chairman of The Gambia Christian Council