There are encouraging signs that Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, may ease the pressure on Christians in the West African country, following years of creeping Islamisation.
Gambia’s previous president and de facto dictator, Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a coup in 1994, had increasingly promoted an Islamist agenda. In 2015, Jammeh declared that Gambia was an Islamic republic, “In line with the country’s religious identity and values … As Muslims are the majority in the country.” The declaration was presented as a move away from the country’s colonial past – Gambia was a British protectorate from 1894 until independence in 1965 – but also signalled a renewed effort to increase the role of Islam in a country which has a secular constitution and has historically had a tradition of religious tolerance.
In 2016, Jammeh announced plans to introduce sharia law for all Muslims, to take precedence over the post-colonial legal system based on English common law. He also introduced a directive requiring female government staff to cover their heads during office hours, although this was later rescinded after pressure from opposition groups. However, Christians – who comprise between 5-8% of the population and live predominantly in the west and south of the country – have experienced violence from Islamist mobs attempting enforce Islamic dress codes.
In the face of rising Islamism, many Gambian Christians supported the candidacy of Adama Barrow, despite him being a Muslim. Before running for office, Barrow, who studied for real estate qualifications in the UK in the early 2000s, worked as a successful property developer. Once his predecessor had reluctantly agreed to hand over power, one of Barrow’s first acts was to meet with representatives of the Christian community, before meeting members of the country’s Islamic Council: a hopeful sign that Gambia’s new president will work to restore the country’s tradition of religious freedom and tolerance, as well as its crumbling economy.