BANJUL, Gambia (Christian Examiner) – Gambia – smallest of all of the African nations – is now an Islamic republic, the country's president said in a surprise announcement at a political rally Dec. 11.
According to the BBC, Yahya Jammeh was speaking in the seaside village of Brufut, nine miles from the nation's capital, when he said the country needed to make a final break with its colonial past. Gambia was under British rule until 1965 and it was a democracy until Jammeh seized power in a military coup d'etat in 1994. It remained, however, a part of the British Commonwealth until 2013, when Jammeh ordered its separation.
"Gambia cannot afford to continue the colonial legacy," Jammeh said. "In line with the country's religious identity and values, I proclaim Gambia as an Islamic state."
Jammeh, however, was not pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). Ninety percent of the nation's 1.8 million citizens are, however, Muslim. That is why, he said, the move makes sense.
His country now shares the title of "Islamic republic" with Iran and Pakistan, both of which allow the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.
According to a report in the Independent, however, Jammeh also said religious minorities need not worry. His government, he said, will allow non-Muslims to dress as they wish (not in keeping with Islamic standards of modesty for women) and "respect the rights of all citizens and non-citizens."
Gambia's chief Muslim cleric has not endorsed the change in designation for the country, but it is expected that he will, for those who oppose Jammeh generally do not last long. In fact, many of his political opponents disappear or are killed.
Jammeh's often erratic behavior also frequently leaves world leaders scratching their heads in disbelief. He has expelled European diplomats, described himself in almost messianic terms as a "master peacemaker" and "champion nation builder," and has recently claimed to be able to cure AIDS purely with herbal supplements and his special powers. So far, however, the death rate from the disease in the country has not declined.
The European Union announced last year it would not allow foreign aid to Gambia because of Jammeh's poor record on human rights.
Just this month, Jammeh said he would see his political opponents dead before the country headed into the 2016 presidential elections, according to Gambia's Freedom Newspaper.
"We will kill all troublemakers ahead of the elections. Anyone who wants to upset the peace and stability of this country would be killed before the elections. There wouldn't be any mercy for troublemakers," Jammeh said during a gathering of his supporters in Janjangbureh.
"We will not compromise for the peace and security of this country. People who want to hide behind politics to cause trouble will be killed. There will be no mercy for the merciless. The security forces have been mandated to protect this country from troublemakers. We will kill them."
Jammeh has in the past said any future elections would be for show – a mere "formality" – because they could not determine his political fate. Only "Almighty Allah" can do that now, he said.
One opposition minister said Jammeh has reached his "endgame," because the leader knows Gambians are disenchanted with his rule. Few, except those forced to attend, come to his political rallies anymore.
"He is very worried. His threats to kill our people is real. He is determined to use force to stay in power. He is going to render many members of the opposition missing before the elections. His only remaining power constituency base is the army. And not the entire army is with him. His government is at a crossroads," the minister, who did not wish to be named, told the newspaper.
"We are presiding over a bankrupt government. There is no money in this country. In addition to that, Gambians are also increasingly dissatisfied with the Jammeh establishment. Some of us are contemplating fleeing before the table flips. Jammeh is a one man, trying to micromanage a failed country and government. There is nothing here."
Gambia's United Democratic Party (UDP) issued a statement after Jammeh's announcement about the country becoming an Islamic republic. The opposition group, presumably a target of the president's threats, said his warnings to his opponents were "a new low in his unstoppable slide to self-destruction."
"We want to make it categorically clear to President and his thugs as well as his security forces which he use to unleash terror on innocent Gambians that participation in politics is not a gift but a right. The UDP will not negotiate with President or indeed anyone on our rights to participate in party politics. If there is any filth that needs to be completely cleansed in the Gambia, it is President Yahya Jammeh's divisive politics which has brought irreparable damage to the Gambia," the UDP statement said.
"The Gambia," as the country is officially known, is roughly 200 miles long and 40 miles wide at its widest point. The country runs from central Senegal out to the ocean along the Gambia River. Gambia relies heavily on tourist dollars and nearly collapsed during the Ebola crisis in Africa last year. Critics say Gambia has yet to recover because of Jammeh's erratic and bizarre style of leadership.