ITS arrival was less bloody, its ambitions less grand. But as 2015 drew to a close, and the world’s attention was fixed firmly on Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, the Gambia announced that it, too, was henceforth an Islamic state. The president of the tiny west African nation, Yahya Jammeh, issued the proclamation, which came with no forewarning and seemingly on a whim, on December 11th, 2015.
Mr Jammeh cited the wishes of the people (90% of Gambians are Muslim), and the need to distance the country from its “colonial legacy”. The Gambia now follows Mauritania as Africa’s second “Islamic Republic”, although the country’s secular constitution, ratified in 1996, remains unaltered.
On January 4th an executive order, leaked to the press, banned all female civil servants from leaving their hair uncovered during working hours. The national broadcaster has taken to referring to the Gambia as an “Islamic Republic” and the Supreme Islamic Council, a group of scholars, is to go around the country stirring up popular support for the decision. Legislation to enforce it will soon be introduced into parliament and the national flag will be changed to reflect the country’s new status, says the president.
But key details are still lacking. It is not clear, for instance, whether Mr Jammeh intends to implement fully-fledged sharia (Islamic law), as he was rumoured to be planning in the early 2000s, or whether he plans to put the issue to a referendum. In his original declaration in December he assured non-Muslims that their rights would be protected, and that there would be no mandatory dress codes. Such promises already look thin in light of the January 4th order.
Mr Jammeh’s government already has one of the worst human-rights records on the continent. Gay people are persecuted: Mr Jammeh has publicly vowed to slit their throats. Dissidents are brutalised in inventive ways in torture chambers not far from The Gambia’s tourist beaches. On one occasion the security forces rounded up hundreds of villagers suspected of witchcraft after the president’s aunt grew sick. During interrogations, many of the female “witches” were raped, according to Human Rights Watch.
Now that Mr Jammeh is cloaking his regime in Islam, “the non-Muslim community is beginning to get worried,” says Sidi Sanneh, a former Gambian diplomat and prominent dissident.
Mr Jammeh’s motives are difficult to discern. Some regard the announcement as mere grandstanding, in keeping with his habit of erratic policymaking and provocative public statements. In 2007, for example, he announced that he had found a herbal cure for AIDS. And in 2013 he pulled the Gambia out of the Commonwealth, saying it was a “neocolonial institution”.
“The government doesn’t even have the know-how to make the country into an Islamic state,” says Imam Baba M. Leigh, a Muslim leader in exile. As if to confirm this, Isatou Njie-Saidy, the vice-president, urged the Supreme Islamic Council to carry out research into the exact requirements of an Islamic Republic, during a meeting on January 5th.
But there is likely more than just caprice behind Mr Jammeh’s decision. The economy is in dire straits, especially in the aftermath of west Africa’s Ebola epidemic, which has crippled the tourist industry. The Treasury is all but empty. Mr Jammeh’s Islamic gestures seem aimed at winning the support of Arab Gulf states, most notably Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, whose cash and investment the president is thought to crave. There is little hope of him getting much support from the West. In December 2014, for example, the EU suspended some €13m ($14.2m) of development aid because of human-rights abuses.
Domestic politics may have also played a role. Since coming to power in a coup in 1994, Mr Jammeh has sought to legitimise his rule by invoking Islam, says Dr Marloes Janson of the School of Oriental and African Studies. The beginning of 2016 marks the start of a new electoral cycle, though Mr Jammeh faces little risk of being sacked by voters. He has won four elections in the past, with the help of some judicious rigging. The opposition are cowed. The Gambia is less an Islamic Republic than an absolute monarchy.