TAT Opinion| President Barrow in a Quandary. Will He Gratify the World Over a Religious Rite?

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By: Yankuba Manneh

Yankuba Manneh, the author

Monday 18th March would be another defining moment in the history of The Gambia as National Assembly decides on the private member Bill brought in by Foni Kansala NAM – Almamy Gibba – to decriminalise the law banning centuries-long islamic tradition of female circumcision. Whatever happens on the D-day would become historic. Understanding his usual long-deafening silence on important national discourses like this one, by all indications surrounding this contentious matter, President Adama may highly likely gratify the activists and the international community over a religious rite.

In his nearly 8th-year rule, the Gambian leader has a proven track records of being on other side of the spectrum on critical matters of concern to most Gambians. He reneged on his promise of 3-year rule. Gambians were in a broad daylight denied of their Draft Constitution 2020 through a political process, simply because it was deemed anti-Barrow and the first family. And the continued cries of the our people for government to address poor economic performance, acute poverty, unemployment, grotesque inequality, food insecurity amongst others may possibly go on to infinitum. Well, that’s a topic for another appropriate day.

The subject of debate is sensitive and delicate in nature, and it ought to be dealt with as such. The mere fact that Supreme Islamic Council (SIC), a religious body with majority in the country, takes up the matter added a different layer of meaning and position to the issue. It now becomes a whole religious institution (not a certain group of Muslim clergy and scholars as described by some) versus the government over the Bill. This is unprecedented in the history of The Gambia.

Therefore, it becomes imperative for the President and his government to approach and deal with this fundamental subject matter differently as opposed to their handling of the Draft Constitution. Because I witnessed, on that inauspicious day in September 2020, how the Draft Constitution was slain in cold blood on the floor of the Assembly. That was purely politically motivated on the part of the NPP NAMs and those they successfully induced to get the number required to do so.

Allow me to be a bit more critical for a moment. I have listened carefully to both sides of the divide. The more I listen, the more confused I become regarding the particular piece of law. What did the law ban – Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting or Female circumcision? The SIC says emphatically that the centuries-long islamic tradition has ever been the female circumcision, not the other. I think the law needs to look at once more to ascertain what has really been outlawed. I suppose it may be the FGM/C instead. If that is truly the case, how can those who perform Female Circumcision as a religious rite then become criminals?

At this stage, I believe a lot of lobbying and persuasion had been done covertly. It takes numbers and influence to get what you want on anything the Assembly decides. With firsthand experience of what befell the Draft Constitution, I am convinced any group (SIC or Activists/International Community) that gets the President’s weight will prevail. And that brings President Barrow and his NPP-led government central to the outcome of Monday’s Parliamentary session.

I argue the verdict is already out. The side on which President Barrow’s government may possibly support was tacitly made known when Seedy SK Njie, NPP’s Deputy Spokesperson and Deputy Speaker of National Assembly, said this cultural tradition is harmful and not even islamic. This position was corroborated by Lamin K. Saidy, the youth adviser to the President, in a Facebook post. These among others in NPP ranks are people who dine and whine with President Barrow. It became even more obvious when I read the UN’s communique to the government advising against the repeal. In what looks like a decided game, they are now waiting to scapegoat a political process and call it a democratic exercise.

To resolve this matter, if the President wills, is not difficult. What the SIC is all asking for is simple. Just repeal the law and allow Muslims who believe in the Sunnah to do so. I think criminalising one’s religious belief system could be problematic, and a travesty of rights. NAMs should decriminalise it and accord the people the liberty and freedom of choice guaranteed in the 1997 Constitution.

Activism may be a trade or a means of survival for some. While religion is a way of life of people. Attacking religious institutions or picking up “faults” in people’s religious belief systems, especially in a highly religious society like The Gambia, is indeed a recipe for chaos. There are a countless number of things in the universe that may be changed through activism, but not people’s religions. If I were in the activism space I would definitely spare people’s religious belief systems, however lucrative they may be, just for the peace of the society and the world by extension.

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