The Gambia has been declared an Islamic republic by President Yahya Jammeh who said he wanted to further distance the west African state from its colonial past.
The tiny, formerly secular country – named after the river from which British ships are said to have fired cannonballs to fix its borders – joins the ranks of other officially 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, Gambia cannot afford to continue the colonial legacy.”
The Gambia’s population of 1.8 million people are 95% Muslim. Jammeh said citizens of other faiths would still be able to practise.
Jammeh, an animated orator who has earned the 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.
In November the president announced he would outlaw female genital mutilation after international pressure that included a campaign by the Guardian. However activists have since said continued international pressure is needed for the president to pass his declaration into law.
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 European Union temporarily withheld aid money in 2014 over 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.
The blogger Sidi Sanneh, a former foreign minister who has become a US-based dissident, said: “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.”