The Enigma of a Gambian Islamic State: Leadership Policy Rationale in Context

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President Jammeh of the Gambia has done it once more, bringing to light his controversial and irrational state of mind. From claims that he can cure HIV/AIDS, Female infertility and his dehumanizing scheme of witch hunting, the Gambian leader at a recent political rally declared the Minuscule West African state an Islamic State. Jammeh noted that making the Gambia an Islamic State detaches the country from her colonial legacy; an enigma that has given rise to several speculations.

By making such declarations, President Jammeh has dramatically altered The Gambia’s foreign policy landscape.

After carefully listening to the contradictory declaration by the Gambian leader, two questions came to mind: First, what is the rationale behind Jammeh’s decision to declare the Gambia an Islamic State? Second, did he transcend the limits of his power as defined by the constitution?

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To better put the Gambian president’s rationale into context, it’s important to look at four major foreign policy analysis that explains why irrational leaders of small states behave the way they do. Walter Casnaes (1992) looked at problems with agency structure, emphasizing the influence of international conditions and state behavior in examining foreign policy changes on the international stage. For Carlsnae (1992), the three main dimensions to examine includes, the intentional dimension (explaining the purpose), the dispositional dimension, (explaining state reasoning), a structural dimension (explaining the international environment). The linkages of these three dimensions provides a base of understanding foreign policy changes of a state

Charles Hermman (1990) provided four indicators as factors responsible for a redirection of government foreign policy. These indicators includes, leadership (influence of the leader), bureaucratic advocacy (the influence of the elite structure), domestic restructuring (internal changes taking place at the time) and the external environment (the international environment at the time). Kalevi Holsti’s (1970) seminal work on foreign policy focused on restructuring, explaining “four types of foreign policy positions to include, isolation (limited or no external involvement), self-reliance, dependence (external relations are focused with a single state), and diversification ( high levels of external activities directed at multiple actors in the international stage)”. For Holsti (1970), such behaviors includes “anticolonial predispositions and policies, the unwillingness to enter alliances, receipt of foreign aid, and practicing independent judgement on world issues” (p233).  Out of this model, Holsti developed 12 sources of foreign policy, outlining other factors such as “modernization, economics, nationalism, ideological disputes, globalization and technological change, mass education and the evolving concept of sovereignty”. Our very own Omar Touray (1995) draws on several analysis but places emphasis on security, survival, sovereignty, independence and economic interest as major determinants of the foreign policy of micro states. The conclusions drawn from these theoretical formulations can explain Jammeh’s recent policy through four main perspectives.

First, Jammeh is faced with increasing isolation and sanctions threatening his government agencies economically, socially and politically. Externally, Jammeh’s largest donors such as the European Union (EU) have increasingly withheld developmental aid as a result of the growing concerns of human rights abuses.  He also severed relations with Taiwan, a prominent financial supporter of the Gambian regime. Further, a United States (US) sanction continues to suspend The Gambia from the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides incentives for African countries to export goods to the United States subject to zero import duty.  Such a turbulent international environment is having an adverse impact on the internal governance landscape. Aid money from prominent developmental partners and foreign investors is no longer supportive of many government agencies, therefore incapacitating operational dynamism in many facets. Tourism, which is a major sector of the Gambian economy have also deteriorated considerably over the years. By openly politicizing the Gambia’s Islamic identity, Jammeh seeks to strengthen ties with some Middle Eastern to secure more aid money to stabilize declining state institutions.

Second, Jammeh may be understanding that the social structure of Gambian society is shifting away from his ideals of political, economic and societal personalization. Citizens are more aligned to values of empowerment, economic, political and social freedoms that he has muscled over the years. Today, as repressive as his regime may be, the Gambian population have come to understand how the regime have failed in its functions of guaranteeing the common good of society. A majority of young Gambians are either fleeing in search of greener pasture, apathetic or embarked on self-made ventures in the private sector at their own expense. Others are either involved with international organizations or fled the country and residing in western nations, mainly the United States, and various European and Scandinavian nations.

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Third, globalization, modernization and education ensured that Gambians understand the governance framework that guarantees progress and stability in a sustainable development framework. With advances in communication technology, and the inroads of social media that empowered citizens in many quarters, Jammeh may be seeking to slowly introduce sharia law to consolidate his grip on power. It remains to be seen how far any Sharia Law Scheme will go for a leader running out of options.

Fourth, the overall policy is rooted in “security, survival, sovereignty, independence and economic interest” (Touray, 1995). With the erosion of state institutions caused by financial and professional constraints, the Gambian leader may be running out of options. His policy behavior is in line with the irrational behavior of leaders of small states faced with increasing isolation and sanction. Arguably, the policy is entrenched in reasons of sustaining eroding state institutions and a demonstration of sovereign authority and independence under increasing global isolation. It is also a misplaced political response and strategy to rally support mostly from nations with a similar identity. The declaration is unconstitutional, contradictory and threatening to the peace and stability of the state. The Gambian constitution states that “The Gambia is a secular sovereign state” and “the sovereignty of the Gambia resides in the people of The Gambia from whom all organs of government derive their authority”. As Abdoulaye Saine (2012) once noted, a culture of religious tolerance on the separation of the state and religion has flourished in the Gambia since independence. The Gambia has always been an Islamic country entrenched in secularity.

Perhaps, the best way to detach the Gambia from her colonial legacy, is to tear down the borders with the only neighboring state of Senegal, and foster better relations with her Government and people.

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