Yahya Jammeh speaking at one of the meeting venues.
Yahya Jammeh speaking at one of the meeting venues.

Gambia’s iron-fist ruler Yahya Jammeh on Friday declared the formerly secular country an Islamic republic in a move he said was designed to distance the West African state further from its colonial past.

The tiny sliver of a country, named after the river from which British ships once allegedly fired cannonballs to fix its borders, joins the ranks of other Islamic Republics such as Iran and Afghanistan.

“In line with the country’s religious identity and values, I proclaim Gambia as an Islamic state,” said Jammeh on state television. “As Muslims are the majority in the country, the Gambia cannot afford to continue the colonial legacy,” he added.

“Gambia cannot afford to continue the colonial legacy,” Jammeh said. The country gained independence from Britain in 1965.

Jammeh said the rights of Gambia’s Christian community will be respected.

Jammeh said that there will be no mandates on dress. “We will be an Islamic state that would respect the rights of all citizens and non-citizens.”

The head of the country’s Islamic body wouldn’t say if he endorsed the declaration.

“We haven’t met yet to discuss over the presidential announcement,” said Gambia’s Supreme Islamic Council Chairman Imam Momodou Lamin Touray.

Hamat Bah of the opposition National Reconciliation Party criticized the decision. “There is a constitutional clause that says that Gambia is a secular state,” he said. “You cannot make such a declaration without going through a referendum.”