The Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission delivered a speech on Education, Peace and Tolerance in a Secular Democracy on Friday 23rd June 2023 at the Graduation and Prize Giving Ceremony of Saint Augustine’s Senior Secondary School. Guest Speaker Mr Joof’s speech touched on numerous salient points on the Draft Constitution, the country’s Secular status, peace and tolerance amongst others.
Below is the speech delivered by the NHRC Chairperson.
The Chief Guest of Honour, Mr Abubacarr Tambadou, The Principal of Saint Augustine’s Senior Secondary School, Father Bruno Toupan, The Board of Governors, Parents and Teachers, Invited Guests, My dear Students.
Good afternoon to you all,
It gives me great pleasure and honour to stand here before you as the Guest Speaker on the Graduation and Prize Giving Ceremony of my alma mater, the Great and Almighty Saint Augustine’s Senior Secondary School.
Father Bruno Toupan, you have indeed done an exemplary job. This school looks nice, neat, clean and tidy and the students, the best mannered and discipline in the country. If I was to apply to a senior secondary school today, I would again choose the Almighty Saint Augustine’s- “Victory for the White and Blue. At book or play we win our way”. Our motto ‘recta sapera’ is our guiding light.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This school once upon a time produced the best students. In fact, let me rephrase- anybody who passed through this school is the best student. It was not only known for producing the best academic students but also the best sportsmen and the best disciplined students. We enter this school rugged and go out to the world as the best refined and priceless pearls, the envy of other people.
Good Education is what Saint Augustine’s High School /Senior Secondary School gave to its students. And the students came from different backgrounds, different tribes, different religions and different regions.
This was a school where there was no discrimination based on the religion or the tribe the student belonged to or the background the student came from. The only “discrimination” one faced was when one was punished and or reprimanded for not excelling in academia, sports or when one was not disciplined. Thus, this school that would also soon become the alma mater of the graduation class of 2023, was the best example of a ‘melting pot’ watched over by teachers who were actuated by nothing but to serve humanity.
This therefore begs the question- What education did Saint Augustine’s High School provide and why is education important?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Education is derived from two Latin words “Educare” which means to bring up, rear, educate, train, to nourish primarily in relation to the mind. It is also connected to the Latin term Educere means to bring out and to lead fort.
According to Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, “education is the process of creation of a sound mind in a sound body”.
Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi the Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer said “education is a natural, progressive and systematic development of all the forces. It distinguishes human beings from other creations”.
The process of education is not only self- realization of the individual, but it is also to bring into action the potential in the person.
There are many theorists from various fields who have tried to define education but a common thread that run through these various definitions is that education is a process by which the knowledge, characters and behavior of the human being are shaped and molded through teaching, instructions, reading research and socialization. Education is indeed enlightenment, and its importance has been hailed by many.
- “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” — Nelson Mandela
- “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” — Malcolm X
- “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin
- “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” — John Dewey the American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform
Ladies and Gentlemen
My Dear Students
Education is supposed to impart to us both knowledge and enlightenment; social skills which includes being well mannered, tolerant of divergent views and the ability to adjust to different environments and settings. The Late Bishop Michael Clearly who was a principal of this school for many years until he handed over the position to the Late Father Gough in 1978 was fond of saying “manners maketh man”. And I dare say, education that is worth its salt instils the best manners in a student.
Education is, therefore, not just book knowledge or the acquisition of facts. While book knowledge and practical and technical skills are important and very necessary to do certain tasks, one’s ability to appreciate the differences in others, co-exist harmoniously with others and work in a team are what a good education should provide.
My Dear Graduating Class of 2023,
You will soon discover as you apply for jobs and if you are lucky to be shortlisted and called for a job interview that a common interview question you will be asked, apart from questions relating to your academic and professional qualifications and experience, will be:
Are you a team player? Can you work in a team with people of diverse backgrounds, races, tribes, gender, religions, social origin?
Tell us how you would behave if you find yourself in a workplace with people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, religions, tribes, gender, social origin, etc.?
Do you know why this question is asked? It is expected that through education one would have been socialized to be tolerant, understanding, develop mutual respect, appreciate diversity and differences, know how to peacefully co-exist with others and above all be discipline and have character. These attributes are key if we as human beings are going to live together in peace and harmony and have a prosperous society, and hopefully minimize and or mitigate conflicts in our society.
Look around the world and at the Africa continent especially and you will observe the enormous challenges which hamper our economic growth and development. The factors are tribal conflicts; religious and sectarian conflicts; threats related to violent extremism and terrorism; intercommunal and gender-based violence; increased spread of hate speech against political opponents, religious groups, women, minority groups etc.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Peace and Tolerance are key to any future development of a country. The division and rift in our society was clearly manifested during the Constitutional Review Commission consultations regarding the draft Constitution- especially the debate whether to include the word “SECULAR” in the draft constitution which became very contentious. The ensuing debate caused a lot of unnecessary tension between the Christian minority and some Muslim groups. Certain meanings and definitions were ascribed to the word Secular to denote a society advocating and encouraging men to marry men, women marrying women, women marrying dogs and many unthinkable definitions and explanations. Meanwhile the minority Christians felt that they will have better protection if the word Secular was to be included in a new constitution as they felt that such an inclusion will give them better protection as a religious minority and halt the creation of an Islamic state and marginalization of Christians. This was a fear that they had following the unconstitutional announcement by the former Head of State of Gambia declaring The Gambia as an Islamic State on 11th December 2015 in a political rally in Brufut.
I say ‘unconstitutional declaration’ of the Gambia as an Islamic State because the 1997 Constitution of The Gambia provides for a secular democracy which is non-tribal, non-religious and non-sectarian.
This therefore begs the question. What is a Secular Democracy and Why & How Can The Gambia Be termed As a Secular Democracy?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In a secular democracy, all citizens are equal before the law, no religious affiliation gives anyone advantages or disadvantages in political office and religious believers and non-believers are deemed to have as citizens the same rights and obligations. In other words, there is no preferential treatment of any person or group because of the religion they belong to. This does not however mean that the State does not recognize the rights of the people to practice their religion.
The preamble of the 1997 Constitution paragraph 4 states that:
“The fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in this Constitution will ensure for all time respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to ethnic considerations, gender, language or religion. In acknowledging our fundamental rights we also affirm our duties and responsibilities as citizens of this Country”.
I hasten to add that our 1997 Constitution recognizes aspect of Customary and Sharia law as part of our laws and-Section 7 of the 1997 Constitution recognizes (e) Customary law so far as it concerns members of the communities to which it applies; (f) The sharia as regards matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance among members of the communities to which it applies.
The same Constitution at Section 25 gives to every person the right to
(b) freedom of thought, conscience and belief, which shall include academic freedom;
(c) freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice
(f) freedom to petition the Executive for redress of grievances and to resort to the Courts for the protection of his or her rights.
And Part 7 Section 60 provides that (2) No association shall be registered or remain registered as a political party if:
(a) it is formed or organised on an ethnic, sectional, religious or regional basis;
(b) its internal organisation does not conform with democratic principles;
PART 3: of the Constitution which relates to legislative powers of the National Assembly at Section 100 states.
(1) The legislative power of The Gambia shall be exercised by Bills passed by the National Assembly and assented to by the President and that:
(2) The National Assembly shall not pass a Bill (Law)
(a) to establish a one party state;
(b) to establish any religion as a state religion.
So our laws as they currently stand and referencing the provisions that I have just quoted above, The Gambia is indeed a secular democracy.
Our secular democracy does not mean that our laws are anti religion and/or encourage immorality or that it does not protect the rights of people to practice their religion as some were putting it. The meaning of our secular democracy as espoused in our 1997 Constitution is that it gives people the right to practice the religion of their choice; that the state should not interfere in the religious and non-religious beliefs and practice of people; that one cannot declare a state religion; that one cannot establish a party based on religion and or tribe; and that the state should not give preferential treatment to any religion, religious group or vice versa by discriminating against any religion or religious group.
Ladies and Gentlemen
in effect, in a secular democracy, one expects tolerance, co-existence and respect of other tribes, ethnicity, religion, gender and or other status. This indeed was The Gambia that our generation was born into, and which is still preserved in our laws. A Gambia where people of different religions, tribes and different status and backgrounds co-exist. A good number of Gambians who live in the greater Banjul area and the Kombos have mixed parentage i.e., parents practicing different religions and or siblings belonging to different religions and uncle and aunties from all tribes.
Unfortunately, the peaceful harmony of co-existence and living together is gradually being eroded by a very vocal albeit minority group who have been making negative utterances and derogatory statements and innuendos against people belonging to certain tribes, religions, gender and or other status which have the potential of sowing seeds of disunity in our communities. We should all guard against hate speech and statements made to fuel division in our community and country.
Although The Gambia has been spared the menace of tribal, religious and sectarian conflict despite the 22 years of dictatorship under Yahya Jammeh and notwithstanding the progress made in our democratic strides since 2017, one issue that continues to threaten our newfound freedoms is the growth of hate speech and derogatory remarks made against certain groups i.e. political opponents, religious groups, minorities, tribes or the origins of political opponent, against women, against immigrants; unsavoury and divisive statements about the wearing of veils in Christian run schools; the desecration of a Church; the stopping of the Ahmadiyas from building a Mosque; derogatory remarks made by a group of Sunnis against the Shiites and other sects; and the intra tribe caste tension among the Sarahule tribe i.e. Soninkary nobles and the Gambana (we are all equal) in the URR.
The revelations before the TRRC, now contained in 16 Volumes Report, has exposed to all how The Gambia, a small country, suffered from a myriad of human rights abuse for 22 years. It proffered some serious recommendations for the Government and our society in general to take up if we are going to make the “never again” mantra of the TRRC a reality.
One would have hoped that our main objective, preoccupation, and direction should now focus more on how to develop ourselves educationally, economically and invest in creating a better society where people’s rights are respected and protected; a society that values hard work, integrity and accountable, and rewards excellence.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation, if unchecked, has the potential of driving a wedge in our communities, and between faiths that have for long regarded each other as kindred and ‘one big family’. Hate speech and bigotry can destroy a nation as Adama Dieng the Former UN Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide commenting on the dangers of hate speech posited: “Genocide is a process. The Holocaust did not start with the gas chambers. It started with hate speech.” against the Jews. The genocide in Rwanda likewise started with hate speech by dehumanizing the Tutsis and calling them vermin and cockroaches.
Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has seen Protestant Christians and Catholics killing each other although both sects are Christians. Those who place bombs in Mosques in Pakistan and Iraq after Friday prayers killing hundreds of Muslims are also Muslims.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Just permit me to share with you an anecdote regarding the dangers of hate speech and how it influences violent behaviour.
“REASONS PEOPLE WHO HATE & KILL OTHERS IN THE NAME OF RELIGION GIVE:
The judge asked the killer of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, ‘Why did you kill Sadat?
He said to him, “Because he is secular!”
The Judge replied: “What does secular mean?”
The Accused said: “I don’t know!”
In the case of the attempted assassination of the late Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz, the judge asked the man who stabbed Naguib Mahfouz: “Why did you stab him?”
The Accused said: “Because of his novel – The children of our neighborhood”.
The Judge asked him: “Have you read this novel?”
The Accused said: “No!”
Another judge asked the accused who killed the Egyptian writer ‘Faraj Fara’:
“Why did you murder Faraj Fara?”
The Accused replied: “Because he is an unfaithful!”
The Judge asked him: “How did you know he was an unfaithful?”
The Accused replied: “According to the books he wrote”.
The Judge said: “Which of his books did you know he is an unfaithful?”
The Accused: “I haven’t read his books!”
The Accused replied: “I can’t read or write!”
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Hate Speech, misinformation and disinformation are dangerous, and it is usually spread and amplified through ignorance, and sometimes on purpose. It therefore behooves all of us to vigorously and consistently condemn those sowing the seeds of disunity in the name of religion and or tribe if we are to continue living in our peaceful and tolerant society.
Please allow me to place a huge burden on your young shoulders. I am mindful of the world you would soon be pushed into, its pitfalls and dangers and how conformity is the norm therein. But I am also optimistic that as leaders not just of the future but of the present, that St. Augustine’s Senior Secondary has prepared you very well to be able to shoulder this responsibility. I want you to go out and be the change makers in your communities, refusing to be parties to hatred, intolerance, discrimination and bigotry wherever they occur and regardless of who is peddling them.
Go out and contribute to the nurturing of a Gambia where all tribes, be they Jola, Manjago, Sarahule, Mandingo, Serere, Aku, Wollof, Fula, Mangkango, nationalities and adherents of all religious faiths would feel this is a country they can call home and would rise up to protect them against every attack. Wherever you may find yourselves, insist that the only yardsticks for judgment or measurement must be: hard work, competence, excellence and integrity
Finally, I urge you to go out and distinguish yourselves as never before and in whatever path or endeavours you may choose as your career. Be the lengthened shadow of this our great school and alma mater. Be our ambassadors and very credible ones too. When the world wants to tempt you to the way of the ‘devil’, please always remember the great values that Father Toupan and your teachers have instilled in you and the great dreams that your parents and guardians have for you. When your energy is at its ebb and you think of giving up, please think of the great motto of our great school ‘recta sapera’. I pray that you continue to grow and to excel in this journey you are about to embark on. And I shout too ‘Yes, You Can”.
I Thank you All for listening.