Gambian President 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 reportedly 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,” Jammeh said on state television.
“As Muslims are the majority in the country, the Gambia cannot afford to continue the colonial legacy,” he added.
The Gambia’s population of 1.8 million people is 95 percent Muslim.
Jammeh said that citizens of other faiths would still be able to practice their religions.
Jammeh, an animated orator who has earned a reputation for making surprise declarations over the course of his 21-year presidency, pulled the Gambia out of the Commonwealth in 2013, calling it neo-colonial.
In 2007, he claimed to have found a herbal cure for AIDS.
The Gambia recognized Taiwan until Nov. 14, 2013, when Jammeh’s office announced it had cut diplomatic ties with immediate effect.
Despite strong commercial ties with Britain and other European countries, whose citizens are regular visitors to the Gambia’s white-sand beaches, relations with the West have deteriorated in recent years.
The EU temporarily withheld aid money to the nation last year over the Gambia’s poor human rights record. The Gambia, whose main industries are agriculture and tourism, ranks 165 out of 187 countries on the UN development index.
“Starved of development funds because of his deplorable human rights record and economic mismanagement, Jammeh is looking towards the Arab world as substitute for and source of development aid,” said former Gambian minister of foreign affairs Sidi Sanneh, a blogger who has become a US-based dissident.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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