Religious leaders and journalists are being persecuted in the Gambia under the dictatorship of President Jammeh. Yet, they have critical roles to play in cultivating a positive culture of understanding, harnessing the energies of citizens towards social and economic development in the genuine interests of the greater good
More than three decades ago, The Gambia was widely regarded as a wellspring of democracy and respect for both political and civil liberties. But time has moved The Gambia onto a road of religio-pollitical difficulty. The 22 July 1994 revolution has been accompanied by a number of disturbing events: the disappearance and possible extrajudicial execution of a number of Gambian natives, the persecution of selected religious figures, the decline of a vibrant press, and the fall of civil society movements. As a result, The Gambia has virtually become a totalitarian regime.
The Gambia has lost something of its former reputation and is increasingly seen as home to an intolerant and unpredictable government. The country is now at a crossroad—will they continue to accept things as they are, or will they fight for change? But when you talk about another revolution, the question is, what price are you willing to pay? The reality is that the 22 July revolution was a pretention and not a reality. The Gambia from the time of its independence was considered to have the longest-standing democracy in Africa and a respect for human and individual people’s rights. After the revolution all fundamental human values were destroyed, people were killed, and then others went into exile and the rest live in fear. Three journalists have been killed—Deyda Hydara, Omar Barrow and Chief Ebrima Manneh—and two religious leaders who acted as great social justice advocates were taken into custody—Imam Baba Leigh was held incommunicado without charges beyond the legal limit of detention and Ba Kawsu Fofana was forced into exile after being tortured during the time that he was in custody. Sheriff Sirifo Samsudeen Hydara of Foni Wassadu escaped arrest from the notorious NIA after President Jammeh wanted him arrested because he is believed to be an opposition sympathizer. He fled to Senegal, where he too is currently in self-imposed exile.
TOTALITARIANISM UNDER PRESIDENT JAMMEH
The Gambia is a country where the state maintains a tight grip on political activity, freedom of expression and religious freedom. A fundamental challenge facing every society is to create political, economic and social systems that promote peace, human welfare and the sustainability of the environment on which life depends. A totalitarian system and a repressive system bring about fear and terror. It is a society with one voice, in which only the voice of the leader is heard. Where civil society is completely crushed, and the state does not recognize a private sphere, the leader has the status of a god, and the people must be made to fear this wretched person.
Since the time of the revolution things have not been pretty in The Gambia; the conflict has had a steep price. Journalists, human rights defenders and religious leaders are always at risk of becoming victims of possible humiliation, unlawful (and sometimes secretive) custody, or even death. And the long history of hatred and persecution of religious leaders since the revolution cannot be denied. For example, Bishop Solomon Tilewa Johnson and Imam Saja Fatty were sacked unconstitutionally from the Independent Electoral Commission (from the positions of chairman and member of the IEC, respectively) because of lack of respect and contempt towards religious leaders. Imam Alhayba Hydara of the Banjul International Airport was arrested and detained without being charged, Imam Ismaila Manjang of Gunjur Mosque was also arrested, detained, and held incommunicado without being charged. Imam Alhagie Karamo Touray of Brikama Central Mosque was sent to Mile 2 prison and had a protracted trial. It is a shame that the AFPRC government has asked for an expenses refund from late Imam Ratim Alhagie Abdoulie Jobe for medical expenses, which was revealed during the proceedings of the Public Assets Commission.
PERSECUTION OF RELIGIOUS LEADERS BY JAMMEH GOVERNMENT
Similarly, the Ahmadiyya brotherhood that has operated in The Gambia since 1959 was in 2001 officially declared a non-Muslim minority, after Qadiana scholars were out-classed by Muslim scholars in the courts and other forums. A fatwa was declared against the Ahmadiyya Jamaat and non Gambian Ahmadis expelled from The Gambia. President Jammeh demolished a mosque in Gambisara in the Upper River Division and arrested Imam Karamo Dukureh and four of his disciples; then Captain Sanna Sabally insulted the congregation and further disrespected the people of Gambisara. President Jammeh too on many occasions forced Muslim leaders to observe Eid prayers singularly, lest they face severe consequences. The Gambian president also insulted the executive of the Supreme Islamic Council by stating that they had a lack of internal democracy and forced a new election, which is a sheer contempt against religious leaders in Gambia.
Under the current circumstances, it is difficult to see how the political winds might shift to support religious freedom in The Gambia—partly because the political conversation in the Diaspora is presently one of democracy versus populism. Consequently, the only alternative is to wait for the rise of a strong, decisive and committed new leadership that will be able to secure the future of democracy and religious freedom in The Gambia. The Gambian people are yet to have a leader who is devoted to democratic principles; instead, we have witnessed dishonest intellectuals and shoddy politicians who have a populist agenda of ‘ending dictatorship in The Gambia’ without offering any desirable alternative system to that of Yahya Jammeh.
CULTIVATING POSITIVES IN RELIGIOUS LEADERS FOR GREATER GOOD
And yet religious leaders have the ability to bring about great change in The Gambia if they decide to and especially if they can work together. Imams and priests (spiritual leaders) represent various faiths in the Gambia and have a moral responsibility to stand together and denounce categorically derision, misinformation or outright bigotry directed against any other religious leader in this country. Silence is not an option. One aspect of this responsibility is to fight for the rights of other religious leaders. Denouncing the arbitrary arrest of Imam Baba Leigh and the forced exile of Imam Ba Kawsu Fofana without fear helps create a safer and stronger Gambia for all of us. Imam Baba Leigh and Ba Kawsu Fofana have been singled out and received unjust discrimination and have been made the objects of scorn and animosity by those who have either misconstrued or intentionally distorted the vision of the Imams. It is profoundly distressing and deeply saddening, the incident of harassment committed against Imam Baba Leigh and Imam Ba Kawsu Fofana by the Jammeh regime. It is unfortunate we are not in a democracy whose constitution guarantees religious liberty for all.
I believe that the role of religious leaders in The Gambia should be evaluated, redefined and utilized to a greater extent for the good of our country. How can religious leaders peacefully comment on political issues? In contemporary Gambia, religious leaders are required not to engage in politics—that suggests that they have absolutely no positive role to play in the politics or proper governance of their nation. This may be the case in a narrow scope of politics, but in the wider context of development, nation building and uplifting of socioeconomic status is greatly strengthened by the full participation of our religious leaders. The Supreme Islamic Council and some of its executive members are instruments of government propaganda. Some executive members, including the Imam of the State House, are seen on national television helping President Jammeh at his Kanilai farm. The Supreme Islamic Council often call on national prayers for President Jammeh and his family, but I cannot recall when they have called for nationwide prayers for Gambian famers and youth diasporas who actually can help the Gambian economy. Here too is an area for needed change.
VOICES OF THE CONSCIENCE FOR THE NATION
Religious leaders in The Gambia have a moral responsibility and also the authority to speak out on any issue that affects their congregations and, more broadly, the quality of life in their communities, nations and even the world. But that charge involves guiding them so that they know how to relate to political leadership and their role as citizens of the Gambia on one hand and on the other acting as ‘the voices of conscience’ for the nation. Religious leaders stand for values, morals and certain minimum standards that are necessary for a stable, peaceful and prosperous nation. Religious leaders are partners in development and embrace positive views. But religious leaders are representatives of god; they should not be used for political propaganda.
Members of the Supreme Islamic Council and unholy Imams cut secret or unspoken deals with President Jammeh in order to help keep him in power. They invent doctrines to preach to the masses so that they will believe in the ultimate power of the president and of the state. Imam Leigh and Ba Kawsu instead speak for the poor; they tell the truth as they interpret the holy Quran and Hadith of the prophet Muhammad—and we need more like them.
Where are those religious leaders who would speak truth to power like the prophet Isaiah, who declared, ‘Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statues, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make orphans your prey, what will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away (Isaiah 10: 1-3)? Where are the courageous Imams? Why is there only a deafening silence from religious leaders?’
Our duty as concerned Gambians is to defend the interests of the people rather than the interests of misguided individuals whose integrity is questionable and who have a populist agenda rather than a democratic agenda. And we need to support, and have the support of, religious leaders who might be in the position to help bring about change. Religious leaders need to have the courage and the foresight to speak out against the human rights and other infringements of liberty that they witness and use their position in society to help end the oppression and the challenges to true freedom that occur all too frequently in The Gambia today.
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* Alagi Yorro Jallow is founding managing editor of the banned Independent newspaper in the Gambia. He is an award winning-Journalist and Harvard Alum. He lives in United States of America.