1997 Constitution

Secularism as a tool for state neutrality

Jointly written by Maria Saine & Wilson F. Okoi, Barrister & Solicitor of The Supreme Court of Nigeria. 

[Editor’s note: This is Part VI of our special series titled “Constitutional Review in The Gambia: Contemporary Discussions.” The introduction to the special series is available here, Part I is available here, Part II is available here, Part III is available here, Part IV is available here.and Part V is here.]

Secularism is the legal assertion that a State remains neutral as relates to religious matters The state does not adopt any religion as it’s religious representation and more importantly, there exist a clear separation between government institutions and religious institutions.   It may please you to note that the idea of secularism is open to debate because it is considered polemic by many.

Proponents of the notion that The Gambia should be secular view that:

  1. It allows persons from different religions to exist together at the least common denominator; ensuring all their beliefs and rights. This assertion is said to be true because there is no preference of religious beliefs over another, people are therefore not inclined to believe that the state has a superior notional interest in one religious belief over another.      

  2.  Some others assert that secularism allows more rights and freedoms to women, who are generally attributed to submissive roles in various belief systems. This is a candid topic of debate for differing religions who are naturally accustomed to differing spiritual views guiding human behavior with humans and human behaviour with ‘superior spirituality’.

  3. It is also strongly recommended that the practice of secularism protects and promotes government administration to function on the basis of rational discourse rather than religious dogma.

On the other end however, opponents of secularism assert that humanist and secularist take religious views ‘off the public sphere’. Opponents of secularism are of the opinion that a State should have a religious view. Such ideologist are of the opinion for a variety of reasons.

First, the polity are less conscious about religious matters in the public sphere. Indeed, this infers that the states polity identifies government institutions and a religious preference as one.  

Second, a preferred religion gets patronage from the State. This is argued to be a negative and positive. The State religion is the preference of the State and therefore enjoys privileges that other religions (not adopted by the State) will not be opportune to.  Looking objectively, it is therefore negative. But from a subjective stand point (i.e. the view of those in the preferred religion of the State), it is not only in tandem with the major mass of the polity it is also the way that life should be lived.

Third, indeed, religious persons in the polity will argue concerns over the ‘moral compass’ of the nation. This is essentially because of the belief in ‘natural/divine law’ on the legal jurisprudence of same, and/or the belief that religion equates to morality.

From the foregoing, it is evident that the decision of a State to adopt a religion as it’s religious preference is a major step that guides governmental administration.


In The Gambia, the practice of secularism and its constitutionality became a point of case law jurisprudence on the applicability of secularism in The Gambia. In the case of KEMESENG JAMMEH v THE STATE, the legal validity of the Constitution of the Republic of The Gambia, 1997 (Amendment) Act, 2001 was put to the litmus test to examine whether section 1(1) of the Constitution describing The Gambia as a secular state was made ultra voires. The Supreme Court held that section 1(1) of the Constitution and paragraph 13 of schedule II to the 1997 constitution contained in the Amendment Act (6 of 2001) were made in excess of the legislative powers conferred by the 1997 Constitution and are accordingly null and void.[1] Meaning, the amendment failed to pass through an act of referendum. Hence, unconstitutional.

From the train of thoughts above and in my humble opinion, it is instructive to assert the following observations succinctly:

·      Secularism represents how a polity should be/is governed.  

·      Secularism does not in any way or form, infer life without religion neither does it infer that one decides how to worship God.

·      The absence of secularism is the presence of Religious preference in a State.

·      The concept of (non) secularism is practiced variantly owing to factors such as geographical area, culture, population and, the advancement in technology/industrialization amongst others.          

In a sum, secularism is a practice that I believe should be embraced because it maintains the existence of neutrality and exudes the characteristics of an ability to accommodate the diversity in the way life presents itself; liberally.   The State considers the views of every one and no religious preference is an option. Indeed, and legally so, secularism is the best guarantee of freedom of religion/belief – but the enemy of religious privilege.

Suggested citation: Maria Saine & Wilson F. Okoi, Secularism as a tool for state neutrality, 1 February 2019, at https://www.lawhubgambia.com/lawhug-net/secularism-as-a-tool-for-state-neutrality.

[1] Jammeh v Attorney General (2002) AHRLR 72 (GaSC 2001)

Civil and Political Rights in The Gambia


The hallmark of the 22-year dictatorship of the former dictator Yaya Jammeh’s regime was the blatant abuse of human rights and disregard of the rule of law. This has generated a culture of impunity where State agents particularly security personnel could arbitrarily arrest, detain and torture or cause a citizen to disappear or kill with impunity. This situation had therefore cultivated a climate of fear in which citizens faced life and death situation everyday as they decide to either obey or challenge the regime. That notwithstanding, Gambians finally voted out the dictatorship in the 1 December 2016 presidential elections but not without undergoing a stiff political impasse following the rejection of the results by Jammeh. For 60 days, the country was stuck in a stalemate that had triggered diplomatic intervention by the international community with a threat of military action to force Jammeh to concede to the will of the people. The impasse prompted the Economy Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to remove the president-elect Adama Barrow out of the Gambia for safety reasons and to have him sworn-in in Dakar, Senegal on 19 January 2017. Few days later on January 23 Yaya Jammeh finally left the Gambia to seek asylum in Equatorial Guinea.


In its 22-year misrule, the Gambia first witnessed a mass uprising on 10 and 11 April 2000 when the Gambia Students Union sought to submit a petition to the vice president at the time Isatou Njie Saidy to demand justice for the rape of a schoolgirl by paramilitary personnel at a sports meeting at the Independence Stadium in Bakau (10 kilometres away from Banjul) and the killing of another schoolboy Ebrima Barry by fire service officers in the semi-urban town of Brikama (about 40 kilometres from Banjul). As the students assembled to proceed to the office of the vice president, they were met with the full force of well-armed paramilitary contingent in Kanifing. What ensued was a direct confrontation and shooting that resulted into the death of 16 schoolchildren including a Red Cross volunteer and a three-month old baby with many more sustaining injuries.

The incident in Kanifing then generated protests across the country which were quelled with heavily brutal crackdown by both the police and the military. In several towns such as Essau, Barra, Farafeni, Brikama and Janjanbureh in the regions, scores of schoolchildren were shot and injured while hundreds more were detained and tortured for weeks. Eighteen years later, tens of survivors are either wheelchair-bound or on crutches and generally experiencing various forms of pain and disability.

The second time Gambians decided to stage a peaceful protest was sixteen years later on 14 April 2016 when Solo Sandeng, a youth leader of the largest opposition party UDP together with a dozen activists demonstrated for electoral reforms in downtown Kanifing (the biggest city in the Gambia) at Westfield. Naturally the group was met with a barrage of paramilitary forces that arrested all of them immediately. Within 24 hours it became known that Solo was tortured to death and hurriedly buried in an obscure grave in the coastal village of Tanji. The rest of his colleagues were subjected to severe torture including sexual violence.

The April 14 protest triggered the leadership of his party to march to the nearest police station the next day April 15 to demand his body, dead or alive. But even before they reached the station, they were also met with severe police crackdown. The party leader Ousainou Darboe and tens of his executive members and supporters were detained at the central prisons pending charges few weeks later.  Today, two years after that protest, about five of Solo’s colleagues have also died due to injuries from torture while many more are sick or in severe pain.

That mass arrest of the party leadership, supporters and citizens generally therefore gave rise to widespread demands for the opposition to coalesce for the December 2016 presidential election. After failing in many attempts in the past to form an opposition coalition, it became clear to everyone that only with a total opposition coalition could Gambians democratically remove the dictatorship. This realisation is informed by the fact that the regime was involved in electoral malpractices including interfering with the electoral commission in its favour amidst other widespread violations. In response Gambians had sought all means to remove the regime to no avail including the use of armed violence that over the past two decades the country witnessed several coup attempts as well as armed insurrections. Notable armed attacks to overthrow the regime came in 1996 in Farafeni, 1997 in Kartong and 2014 in Banjul where attackers (comprising former soldiers living abroad or Gambians serving in the US Army, with support from serving Gambian soldiers) actually entered State House in Banjul as Pres. Jammeh was out of the country, but fatally repelled. Several were caught and summarily executed while many more were detained, tortured and then court martialled and sentence to several years in jail.

The dictatorship did not only violently suppress civil and political rights, but as a consequence of that it also severely undermined the social and economic rights of Gambians. The blatant confiscation of private and community lands, properties and businesses by Pres. Jammeh was widespread and pervasive. Furthermore, the president also claimed to have a cure for HIV/AIDS, infertility, diabetes and many other diseases or health conditions for which scores of citizens were subjected to his treatment program leading to many deaths and high morbidity. The incidence of corruption and political patronage were entrenched to the point that, in practice there was no distinction between what belonged to the president and what belonged to the State. On many occasions, Jammeh had claimed to own the University of the Gambia, or the cameras of the national television or the vehicles that ministries use as well as claiming to be rich for many generations to come. Because of the way and manner he had personalised state institutions and resources, it meant that public institutions lacked the independence, professionalism and space to efficiently deliver public goods and services while citizens lack the space to hold them to account thus further aggravating the socio-economic conditions of the people. By 2016, the Gambia was one of the least developed countries of the world where 60% of the population live in poverty and one of the leading migrant producing nations in Africa.

Enter the New Dispensation

The government Pres. Adama Barrow came on the heels of a longstanding culture of abuse with scores of victims cutting across all strata of the society. Consequently the expectations and hope with which the people received the new dispensation was immensely huge and high. Even before he took office Candidate Barrow had said in his manifesto and campaigns that within six months of taking office he would repeal or reform all laws that infringe on fundamental rights and freedoms, undermine democracy and limit popular participation.

Since January 2017, there has been a largely open space in the Gambia where citizens actively enjoy their civil and political rights. Citizens have been able to speak out openly without fear of reprisal about issues in the society. Many more citizens continue to be bluntly critical, especially on social media, against the decisions and actions of the government in many ways. Radio stations and newspapers have been freely reporting on issues while in many instances citizens have protested in the streets against various issues or the government.

In May 2017 Kartong and Gunjur residents protested against the Chinese fishmeal company accusing it of polluting the environment with bad odour and dumping dead fish on the beach and liquid waste in the ocean. In Kololi (a neighbourhood in the Kanifing Municipality) the youths there also staged a peaceful demonstration against estate developers who were allocated community lands during the dictatorship. Since March 2017 residents in Bakoteh in the Kanifing Municipality have also been protesting at various times and in front of the mayor’s office against the longstanding dumpsite that releases hazardous fumes into the surrounding communities.

However, while there continues to be an open and free space for the exercise of civil and political rights, yet various decisions and actions by the new government have raised concern for the protection of human rights. For example, since taking office Barrow has not yet repealed or reformed any of the draconian laws he had promised to change during his campaign. Rather in November 2017, the Supreme Court of the Gambia went ahead to certify that the Public Order Act (POA) was in line with the constitution. Since 2009, the POA has been challenged for being unconstitutional because it contains provisions that give power to the Inspector General of Police to either grant or deny permit for protest. Observers and human rights activists had condemned the POA that it gives immense powers to the police that override the limits imposed by the constitution that guarantees the right to peaceful assembly and demonstration. In fact the Public Order Act was one of the laws targeted in Barrow’s manifestation for reform.

The Public Order Act was one piece of legislation that the former regime had consistently used to clampdown on citizens for merely exercising their civil liberties including engaging in political activity. It was because of the POA that in 2010 the opposition UDP’s campaign manager Femi Peters (late) was jailed for one year for organizing a political rally in Banjul without a police permit to use a public address system. Secondly it was because of this law that the UDP leader Ousainou Darboe and scores of his executive members and supporters were also jailed for three years in July 2016 for unlawful assembly when they marched to the police station to demand the body of their late party youth leader Solo Sandeng. Similarly it was because of the Pubic Order Act that the paramilitary forces were deployed against students in 2000 leading to the shooting to death of dozens.

Following violent riots in May 2017 by the youths in the communities of Farato (about 30km from Banjul) against the demolition of homes and in June 2017 in Kanilai (home village of the former dictator Jammeh) against the presence of ECOWAS military intervention forces in the community, it has now been noticed that the government appears to deny any form of protests. This came first in November 2017 when a youth movement, #OccupyWestfield sought a permit to protest against the poor electricity supply in the country. The police initially gave the permit only to withdraw it within 24 hours. Similarly in January 2018, a political science lecturer at the University of the Gambia Dr. Ismaila Ceesay was ‘invited’ to the police headquarters for questioning for comments he made in a newspaper interview. It turned out that when Dr. Ceesay arrived at the station, he ended up being detained overnight and then charged for ‘incitement to violence’. Following a public outcry mainly by students and the Gambian civil society, the police were forced to release him and drop the charges. These incidents, if anything to go by clearly show that the open and free space for human rights in the Gambia at the moment may not last long.

Even when the government had passed other laws that broadly speak to the promotion and protection of human rights yet there have been instances of inconsistencies that cause for concern. For example in December 2018 the government passed new laws setting up the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission, the Constitutional Review Commission and the National Human Rights Commission. These moves have been welcomed by activists, human rights organizations, development partners and citizens generally. However there have been concerns that the government has been selective in dealing with major human rights issues of the past. While the government was commended for opening investigations and prosecution into the murder of Solo Sandeng, many are concerned why similar action was not taken in the case of the April 10 and 11 students massacre or the murder of Deyda Hydara among others?

What is even more concerning to many has been the fact the new government has failed to repeal the Indemnity Act which as enacted in 2001 to exonerate public officials and security officers for their decisions and actions in the student massacre. The April 10 and 11 Commission of Inquiry held between May and August 2000 identified several officials and officers by name and rank for being responsible for the shooting of the students. Instead of prosecuting or disciplining those responsible as recommended by the Commission, the government rather went ahead to indemnify their actions by describing the incidents as a state of emergency. Thus when the new government came to power, the expectations generally have been that one of the first laws to undergo repeal would be the Indemnity Act to allow for the prosecution of perpetrators and compensation of victims. This has not happened yet.

In addition to the April 10 and 11 incident, there were also other incidents that many were of the opinion that the new government would open investigations into them in order to ensure justice. Some of these incidents include the mass killing of soldiers in November 1994 in the wake of an attempted coup, or the burning to death of the former finance minister Koro Ceesay in June 1995 as well as the shooting to death of veteran journalist Deyda Hydara in December 2004 including many cases of enforced disappearances and summary executions such as in August 2012 when nine inmates in the country’s major prison were killed.

It must however be noted that generally the president Adama Barrow continues to speak positively about protection of human rights. He has expressed his desire on many occasions that civil liberties will remain respected by his government. Marking his first anniversary in office, he said his government had removed the phenomenon of ‘management by fear’ by creating the enabling environment for the exercises of  civil and political rights.


The civil and political rights situation in the Gambia today is certainly better than what it was during the dictatorship; at least for the foreseeable future. But so long as the draconian laws that infringe on civil and political rights remain in the statutes and the necessary constitutional and institutional reforms are not conducted, especially among security institutions, there remains the possibility that Gambians may encounter an erosion of their human rights. So far the government is not demonstrating the necessary urgency and commitment to these reforms. While the right political statements continue to be made by the leadership yet there has not been commensurate practical steps to not only refrain from infringing on rights but to also expand rights. Apart from the Supreme Court ruling on the POA and the denial of permits to protesters, there is now growing number of police checkpoints around the country reminiscent of the dictatorship.

Some analysts have contended that political expediency or lack of experience or poor leadership or the combination of all seem to have engulfed or preoccupied the new government, while, others have noted that, after all politicians remain the same, i.e. at the end of the day it is about seeking and maintaining power  by any means. Time will tell.




How can young people shape The Gambia's democratic future?

The author gave a similar speech on the theme during the lecture on ‘The Gambia’s constitutional reform process’ organised by the International IDEA:  Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and Faculty of Law, University of The Gambia, 16 March 2018.

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The role of young people in shaping democracy in The Gambia requires a deep historical reflection stretching from the struggles of our forefathers against colonialism and the struggle of young people in the defeat of a 22-year-old dictatorship in 2016. Therefore, the role of young people in shaping democracy today should not be seen as isolated efforts to ensure accountability and resistance to abuse of power, rather it should be seen as a continuity of struggles long conceived even well before the birth of our independence. However, that history will be worthwhile exploration elsewhere. Today I want to address the theme by first looking at the efforts at the regional level that were designed to enhance youth participation in democracy.

At the African regional level, the transformation of the Organisation of African Union (OAU) to the African Union (AU) in 2002 marked a renewed commitment to the promotion of democratic institutions and good governance in Africa. This commitment is premised on the recognition that inclusive participation, good governance and democracy are fundamental pillars of continental development. In 2013 the AU adopted the Solemn Declaration which called on African states to unite and articulate common development aspirations reflective of the continent’s contextual realities. That commitment gave birth to the adoption of Agenda 2063 which articulates Africa’s long-term development vision. Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063 provides that the continent aspires for an ‘Africa, whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth,’ As such, youth are critical to the realisation of Agenda 2063 as over 60% of the continent’s population is estimated to be under the age of 30.

Moreover, in recognition of the role of youth in ensuring democracy, the AU adopted other normative and institutional frameworks that require member states to enhance the participation of young people in democracy, governance and decision-making. These normative frameworks include the Youth Charter adopted in 2006, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990), the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) (2007), the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981), and the Constitutive Act of the AU (2002). All these instruments engender rights, duties and freedoms that enhance the meaningful participation of young people in issues that concern their well-being, aspirations, democracy and governance.

Based on these frameworks, the AU also devoted 2017 as the year of ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth’. In pursuance of this agenda the African Union Commission designed a roadmap that focuses on four pillars on youth investment. These pillars are Employment and Entrepreneurship, Education and Skills Development, Health and Wellbeing, and Rights, Governance, and Youth Empowerment. The fourth pillar which involves Rights, Governance and Youth Empowerment deals with a commitment to ensure youth participation, representation and inclusion in decision-making processes is guaranteed. The pillar also calls for an inter-generational dialogue that will foster learning for emerging young leaders in the continent.

Drawing from these standards, the AU shows a commitment to enable youth participation in democratic governance. However, the extent to which youth will effectively participate in democratic governance will depend on the level at which these frameworks are translated into realistic commitments and policies at the domestic level. Lack of political will and dictatorial tendencies can create a disjoint between regional standards and national efforts.

The Gambia is a party to many regional instruments and in fulfilment of her obligations have adopted policies and laws to enhance youth participation in democratic processes. Article 89 (1)(b) of the Constitution of the Gambia 1997, sets the minimum age limit to participate in parliamentary elections at 21 years. For presidency, Article 62(1)(b) sets the minimum age at 30 years. Moreover, Article 196 makes it mandatory on every Gambian to undertake national youth services after attaining the age of 18. In addition to the Constitution of the Gambia 1997, the government also adopted the National Youth Policy subsequent to the establishment of the Gambia National Youth council in 2000. The purpose of the NYC council is aimed at enhancing the participation of youth in national development.

The role of youth in shaping democracy in the Gambia was crystallised in the 2016 Presidential Elections when they rallied to elect a new leader that would pave the way for what would be the first democratic change of government in the history of the country since 1965. This change did not only allow the new government of The Gambia to close a dark chapter of bad governance since 1994, but also presents an opportunity for renewed commitment to the respect of human rights and democracy. In light of that change, the new government of President Adama Barrow pledges to embark on a comprehensive constitutional reform to further consolidate democracy and human rights protection in the Gambia.

The engagement and participation of youth in this election was unprecedented and critical. Due to their frustration over the autocratic regime of President Yaya Jammeh, they rallied behind the banners of opposition coalition to usher in democratic and constitutional change of government.

Beyond the 2016 elections, from civil society forums, government platforms and on the streets, young people in the Gambia manifest a strong commitment and ethos to ensure that the new government in Banjul lives up to its commitment to democracy, good governance and respect for human rights.

The change of government ensured by young people has also led to the widening of the democratic space in the Gambia where they are unhindered to hold government accountable through social accountability mechanisms. This has led to the formation of youth organisations that are contributing in the policy processes to proactively advance good governance, human rights and democracy. A-Plus Gambia is an example of a youth organisation that is making efforts to hold the government accountable through public expenditure reviews and monitoring of budget. Thus, through budget monitoring youth groups are able to assess the gaps that exist between policies and government actions to ensure the progressive realisation of socio-economic rights particularly local government service delivery. The significance of such activities by youth groups is not only important in shaping democracy but also engender discussions around alternative policy choices for the realisation of human rights.

Furthermore, youth are also involved in peace building efforts in the Gambia. On 9 and 11 May 2017, Gambian youth in partnership with young leaders from 22 African countries organised and hosted a conference under the theme ‘Youth, Peace building and Regional Solidarity: Lessons from Africa’. The conference was jointly funded by the government of The Gambia, UNESCO, and the African Council for the Development of Social Science Research. This conference provided an opportunity for stakeholders to reflect on the challenges and opportunities for youth in transitional systems. More importantly the young participants highlighted the need for intergenerational interaction and dialogue in sustaining peace and ensuring the durability of democracy. The conference also provoked discussions on gender equality, peace consolidation and youth participation in governance.

Nonetheless, as writers accurately put it that the youth bulge in Africa is a double-edged sword. While it can be a catalyst for economic growth and transformation when well-managed, but it can also spur violent conflict across the continent.

Going forward, our fears and aspirations as young people should dictate the pace of our constitutional making process. According to His Lordship the CJ Honourable Hassan B Jallow, ‘’the 1970 Constitution was a well-crafted constitution indispensable to the proper functioning of government’’ However, written constitutions are not a guarantee for democratic government based on constitutional conventions. He went further to say that ‘’the ultimate guarantee for good governance reposes not in the letter of the law, but in the will, commitment and determination of the people and their leadership to tread the path of justice and fair play.’’ It this commitment and will, we the young people of this country demand from our government. We are not negotiating our future in these trying moments of our times.

It is important to emphasise that democracy in this context is understood as popular governance that has its roots in the enlargement of the public sphere for people to constructively participate in the choice of governance they desire. As such, in this context democracy is not synonymous to western liberal democracy which does not give primacy to group rights as a basis for rights, freedoms and duties. The AU has over the years recognised African values as central to human rights, governance and democracy. Thus, Article 3(b) of the Charter for African Cultural Renaissance endears African states ‘to promote cultural democracy which is in separable from social and political democracy. The charter also calls on African states to strengthen the role of African values in promoting peace, good governance, social cohesion and human development. 

As young people, we look forward to an inclusive constitutional making process that will recognise our concerns and fears.