For most Gambians, the conflict over the new constitution started in 2017, when President Yahya Jammeh was forced from power and the new president promised reform. For others who take a long view, the struggle started in 1994, when Jammeh came to power in a coup, started rewriting the constitution, and revised it regularly to suit his political purposes.
But for Begay Jabang, it started with a women’s prayer meeting in Essex, England, in the summer of 2016. She felt God say to her: “Stop praying for yourselves, and start praying for Gambia.”
In response, she founded Intercessors Gambia and launched a 31-day campaign to pray and fast for her native country. Then, when Jabang flew to the Gambia to join in the national day of thanksgiving in March 2017 and celebrate the end of Jammeh’s presidency, she discovered other Christians had also been inspired to pray. Many small prayer groups were urgently interceding for Gambia in its time of turmoil and asking God to intervene in the nation’s politics.
This is new for Christians in Gambia. They are a minority among the 2 million people in the English-speaking West African nation. Nine out of 10 Gambians are Muslims, and a mere 5 percent are Christians. Many of the Christians have emigrated from the country, succeeding professionally in majority-Christian countries like the United States and Great Britain. Abroad or at home, they generally don’t get involved with politics.
There are historic exceptions, including Edward Francis Small, who launched an independence movement in the 1920s with his Aku tribe of freed former slaves. And Gambian Christians served in the colonial and early postcolonial governments. But recent generations of Christians have left political affairs to the Muslim majority.
Some attribute this quietism to the teaching of the missionaries who brought Christianity to the country with colonization and the transatlantic slave trade. Other say the recent neglect has more to do with “brain drain.” The best and brightest at missionary schools would see that, until recent decades, there was no national university in Gambia and few economic prospects, so they would use their Christian education to leave rather than stay and focus on political or economic problems at home.
When Jammeh felt his power starting to slip, however, and declared that the state would no longer be secular but Islamic, a new political engagement was awakened in Gambia’s Christian believers.
“God showed us that all the glory is for him and that he has a purpose in Gambia,” said Lawrence Gomez, a Gambian leader of the region’s International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). “He is giving us time to rise up for our country.”
Gomez is part of a growing group that feels that for too long the Christians have neglected their role in society.
IFES has formed a partnership with the 21-year-old University of the Gambia and is working to recruit Christian professors to the school. From his office in the capital of Banjul, Gomez is optimistic that the next generation will see engagement in politics and the marketplace as a Christian calling.
With the crisis in Jammeh’s government, though, the need became immediate. Jammeh declared the country to be “secular” in 2001 and revised the constitution in a bid to win support from Western governments. When that didn’t work, he went looking elsewhere and in 2016 turned to Saudi Arabia for support. Arabic inscriptions were placed in government offices. Women were forced to wear the hijab. A Christian cemetery was threatened with closure.
One of the early voices to confront him was a Methodist bishop, Hannah Faal-Heim, who accused Jammeh of dividing people. Speaking out on a political matter was so sensitive that the bishop said she was not speaking in an official capacity. Friends told her not to speak out at all, but she felt she had to.
“My job is to pray for the nation and to pray for all people. That’s my work. It’s not politics,” said Faal-Heim. But then she told the president, “As a servant of a living God, I come here with the love of Christ in me to tell you...this is Gambia and Gambia must be one. We must be one. We must all work for Gambia.”
The message resonated broadly. Many Christians actively supported Jammeh’s opponent in the next election, and they and many others successfully elected Adama Barrow in 2017. When Jammeh wouldn’t step down, they organized prayer and joined in the protest in the streets until the former president went into exile.
Barrow promised to only serve one three-year term. One of his first acts when he took office was to launch a Constitutional Review Commission to write a new national charter. The independent commission had 11 members, one of whom was a Christian. The group held more than 100 meetings with Gambian citizens and found widespread support for democratic reforms. Nearly 90 percent wanted presidential term limits, and there was broad support for the protection of religious liberty. The parliament told the commission to “safeguard Gambia’s continued existence as a secular state,” as it went forward.
The nation was poised to repudiate the Islamic state. Then politically active Muslims started rallying against the secular constitution.
“I want Gambia to live in peace, which is a religious peace,” said Omar Jah, a law professor and now an administrator at the Islamic University of Technology in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “It was natural, and we developed it in the absence of the word ‘secular.’ ”
Jah said that Christians should still be allowed to “propagate for Jesus Christ,” but he objected to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, arguing that the guarantees of human dignity in the Quran are greater.
In November 2019, the constitutional commission published its draft. The word secular did not appear in it. The word sharia appeared 44 times. Though a provision in the document said there could be no declaration of a state religion, the scope and nature of the legal code were not “entrenched,” meaning the jurisdiction of sharia could expand in the future.
“It became very emotional,” Gomez said. “As Gambians, we used to be one people. Now a national document divides us in two.”
The Christians advocating for a secular state, including Jabang and the Gambia Christian Council (GCC), representing more than 100 Christian groups, were at a loss for how to push back on this new constitution. In a country where more than 90 percent of people are Muslim, what arguments could they make when their concerns were labeled as against an Islamic identity?
Thomas Schirrmacher, a Christian moral philosopher and president of the International Institute for Religious Freedom, had an idea.
“They will not win if they insist on secular and no sharia. But if they drop this, they can win the moderate Muslims,” Schirrmacher said.
Schirrmacher and his wife, Christine, a professor of Islamic studies in Germany, flew to Gambia to help organize ahead of the parliamentary ratification. Along with Jabang and the GCC, they proposed defining Gambia as “a sovereign state of God-fearing citizens.” They suggested shari‘ah law be allowed in family court but be clearly limited. They connected with several prominent imams who were sympathetic to their cause and formed a new group called Sunu Reew, which means “Our Country,” in Wolof, one of the native languages of the region.
Up to the last minute, Sunu Reew petitioned the constitutional commission and any government officials they could speak to about the feared future marginalization of Christians.
But mostly, they prayed.
And then lawmakers voted down the draft.
Only one made mention of the Christians and their concerns. There were political reasons for the vote, including the fact that Barrow reversed his pledge not to run for reelection. But Christians saw it as an answer to prayer and a confirmation that it is time to get involved in politics.
“Muslims are telling their politicians, ‘Christian prayers brought down Jammeh, and now the constitution—watch out!’ ” Jabang said. “They now know that our faith matters.”
Jayson Casper is a foreign correspondent for Christianity Today.
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