Gambia: Why Sharia is not an option
By Baba G. Jallow
Back in 2013 when he reduced the work week from five to four days, I wrote a piece in which I argued that contrary to fears in some quarters, imposing Sharia law was not an option for Mr. Jammeh. In the light of recent developments in The Gambia, I wish to share that piece with the public, unedited.
Around the middle of January, 2013, Gambia’s dictator Yahya Jammeh – who insists on being called His Excellency the President Sheikh Professor Alhajj Doctor Yahya AJJJ Jammeh – dropped yet another of his increasingly eccentric bombshells: he decreed – without any known consultation with the cabinet or legislature – that effective February 1, the country’s work week would be reduced from five to four working days. Instead of working Monday to Friday 8:00 – 4:00 pm, Gambians were now ordered to work Monday to Thursday, 8:00am – 6:00pm. Henceforth, Friday was to be reserved for prayer and agricultural work on the farms. A couple of weeks later, Jammeh argued publicly that if Christians had Sunday off for prayer, why should Muslims not have Friday off for prayer? In his usual unthinking totalitarianism, Jammeh did not expect anyone to question the wisdom of his latest imposition on the Gambian people.
Jammeh’s latest act of mindless eccentricity created a loud buzz within the international community. While only sighs of resignation and despair were perhaps mouthed inside the country for fear of arrest, torture or disappearance orchestrated by the ostensibly all-seeing police state, the protests of the Gambian Diaspora community hit listservs and online media with characteristic vehemence. The usual questions were raised about Jammeh’s sanity and just what useful purpose this reduction of the work week served. What were its potential consequences for the Gambian economy? Why does Jammeh turn the country and its people into mere toys to play with according to his fancy? Interestingly, hardly any member of the Gambian Diaspora expressed concern that the erratic dictator was about to turn the country into an Islamic state under sharia law. They knew their man better than that.
The international community, however, was visibly shaken. Many thought that Jammeh, who makes no secret of his hatred of the West and supposedly western concepts such as human rights, the rule of law and democracy, was about to turn the tiny secular country into a theocracy which will then serve as a haven for the dreaded Islamic fundamentalists now prowling the wastelands of Africa and wreaking havoc on already suffering nations and peoples. If Jammeh could claim to have found a cure for HIV/AIDS, if he could claim to have been born three months after independence because he did not want to be born under colonial rule, if he could repeatedly tell the west to go to hell, what would prevent him from doing or saying whatever caught his fancy, like imposing sharia law on the country?
It was with an effort to find out if Jammeh indeed wanted to turn The Gambia into an Islamic theocracy that the BBC called me for an interview on the four day week. When the news anchor asked what I thought might be the reason for Jammeh’s imposition of the four-day work week, she perhaps expected me to confirm what she and many others in the international community suspected: that he was edging towards imposing sharia law on the country. When I gave her my take on the issue – which I share below – her response was whether I did not think that was rather outlandish? Was it not perhaps because Jammeh was thinking of turning The Gambia into an Islamic state? Yes, it was outlandish; but outlandish is precisely one accurate way of describing Yahya Jammeh. And no, I did not think that Jammeh was about to turn The Gambia into an Islamic state. Here’s why.
While about 90 percent of Gambians are Muslims, they are not the type of Muslims that would tolerate being forced to wear the veil, grow a beard, or stop wearing shorts and other clothes of their choice. Jammeh knows that while some Gambian Muslims would perhaps out of fear comply with such an order, the majority would hate the idea of being forced to do so. Trying to impose the veil on Gambian women or banning the wearing of shorts or western clothing in The Gambia could ignite the tinder box that would eventually blow him and his power to pieces. Jammeh knows that only too well.
Moreover, about nine to ten percent of Gambians are either Christians or adherents of traditional religions. There is no way that these Gambians can be made to abide by Islamic sharia law and it would be an unbearable burden on state resources to determine who was Muslim or not Muslim on a daily basis in an attempt to enforce sharia law. If Jammeh attempts to impose sharia law in The Gambia, he would have to deal not only with large numbers of Muslims refusing to abide by the law, but will also have to contend with the sizeable number of Christians and traditional religionists – including many in the security forces – who will never accept sharia law.
I also told the BBC that Jammeh was not about to impose Sharia law in The Gambia because that would prevent him from enjoying some of his favorite pastimes. At his home village of Kanilai, Jammeh maintains an expensive palace where he enjoys watching half-naked female wrestlers juke it out to the accompaniment of much drumming, dancing and clapping that are evidently unIslamic. Another of his favorite pastimes is hosting performances by traditional dance troops, magicians and sorcerers who demonstrate their knowledge of the occult to his ultimate delight. Recently, one magician from Mali claimed to have transformed a young man in the audience into a likeness of the president. In the video footage of the event, Jammeh could be seen raising his hands and bragging “I am Yahya Jammeh!” amidst much clapping, shouting and drumming. If Jammeh imposes sharia law in The Gambia, he could not possibly continue enjoying these totally unIslamic hobbies.
My “outlandish” explanation for Jammeh’s reduction of the work week was that while it was totally impossible to prove the thesis, it was most likely that Jammeh had been warned by one of his sorcerers to avoid going to work on Fridays. It is common knowledge among Gambians that in spite of his pretense to Islamic piety by dressing like an Arab sultan and perpetually clutching a prayer bead and what looks like a copy of the Koran (people speculate that it is not in fact a Koran, but a box of fetishes), he is an ardent believer in the occult. He himself has boasted many a time that he is possessed of knowledge of the occult. So it is very plausible that having being warned by a sorcerer to avoid going to work on Fridays for fear of being ambushed and overthrown, and because he could not possibly stay home every Friday and expect everyone else to go to work as this might raise some unwanted questions, Jammeh decided to make everyone stay at home on Friday. He found a plausible excuse by claiming that Muslims needed a full day of their own for prayer and work on the farms. What discredits this notion is that Fridays were half days anyway in The Gambia. People got off from work at 12:30pm and went home in good time for the Friday prayers at 2:00pm or 3:00pm in some cases. Also, most of those who work on the farms are not salaried workers anyway and reside in the rural areas of the country. Neither office nor farm work had ever prevented those who wanted to attend the Friday prayers to do so.
While Yahya Jammeh habitually wears Muslim clothes and holds Muslim paraphernalia in his hands, many Gambians know that he is far from being a good Muslim or one seriously concerned about the teachings of Islam. His hobbies – outlined above – are patently unIslamic. And while he likes to invoke Allah’s name and swear by the Koran, his use of the religion is at best Machiavellian, at worst, outright hypocritical. His frequent verbal assaults on innocent people, the foul language he habitually uses, his frequent threats to murder his critics, his unceasing boasting and chest-pounding, and his well-known and frequent unjust punishment of innocent people – the arbitrary arrests, detentions, tortures, disappearances and killings of his critics and perceived enemies, including most recently the disappearance of the well-respected Imam Baba Leigh for calling his execution of nine persons by firing squad unIslamic – these are not the marks of a true Muslim. A true Muslim cannot tell a lie as big as that he chose to be born after independence because he did not want to be born under colonial rule or that he had found a herbal cure for HIV/AIDS that was revealed to him by his ancestors . A good Muslim cannot be consumed by the kind of hubris that consumes Yahya Jammeh.
Indeed, nothing in his demeanor suggests that Yahya Jammeh is a true Muslim. Rather, he is a fervent animist who, in pure Machiavellian fashion, has found in Islam a tool for the control, manipulation and subjugation of a largely unsophisticated and increasingly apathetic population.
There might, however, be one other plausible explanation for Jammeh’s decision to cut the work week that again, has nothing to do with Islam: he might be trying to please his patrons in the Arab world. Perhaps by declaring Friday a day of prayer, he hoped to elicit approving nods from some oil rich sultan who would be happy to give him the money he persistently begs for. Since he is getting increasingly isolated by Western donor nations and institutions, sucking up to the Arabs might be a form of guarantee against total bankruptcy for his government. Indeed, barely a week after the beginning of the four-day work week, he made a working visit to the Middle East. But as far as imposing sharia law in The Gambia is concerned, that is just not a feasible option for Mr. Jammeh.
First published in RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 5 (March 2013)