By Journalists For Justice Reporter
“That is a betrayal of the victims of this country. It is a betrayal of the people of this country.”
The words of lawyer Essa Faal sum up the shock and dismay with which many Gambians greeted the news confirming a political alliance between President Adama Barrow’s National People’s Party (NPP) and the party of his predecessor, ousted dictator Yahya Jammeh, as the December 4 elections approach.
They also crystallise the sense of apprehension that has for several months been growing among the Gambians who still cling to the hope for justice for the sometimes harrowing litany of human rights violations and abuses that unfolded during the public hearings of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), of which Faal was the lead counsel.
First it was President Barrow reneging on his promise to his political coalition partners to serve only three years to allow for a smooth transition from 22 years of Jammeh’s oppression. Then followed his party’s perceived courting of Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction Party (APRC) as reports claimed the two entities were in cooperation talks.
At first emerging as tentative rumours and unverified reports, confirmation of the newfound collaboration burst into the open early this month with the announcement of a deal between the two parties, later confirmed by the APRC leadership.
Although many of those who have been championing justice for the victims of Jammeh’s administration since he left power found it difficult to accept this new reality, the former president’s allies seemed to have no such qualms as they relished the newfound alliance.
“The interest of The Gambia, the interest of former President Jammeh, and the interest of the APRC. If any party can give us this, we are ready to coalesce with you,” said the party’s deputy leader, Ousman Jatta, when he appeared on Kerr Fatou, a weekly television programme on Gambia’s public broadcaster, Gambia Radio and Television Services.
Such brazen pronouncements from the former president’s supporters have compounded the pervasive sense of betrayal.
“The people of this country have worked so hard to free themselves from the clutches of a dictatorship that has so badly brutalised its people for 22 years. To come and cosy up to those people and go to bed with them is a betrayal of the people,” said Faal.
Activist Madi Jobarteh echoed the sentiments. “This criminal agreement and document has been kept away from public view and knowledge because they know it represents the worst betrayal on earth,” he said.
He pointed out the fact that the details of the reported agreement have not been made public. “The evidence lies in the fact that neither he [President Barrow] nor NPP or APRC have the guts to disclose their obnoxious MoU publicly since they claimed to sign it on September 2.”
The timing of the cooperation is causing concern among victims and their champions, coming just weeks before the expected September 30 release of the TRRC report, whose recommendations are eagerly awaited.
Many Gambians have expressed concern that the new political alliance will induce the current administration to downplay or ignore the TRRC recommendations on justice for Jammeh-era abuses.
“The fact of the matter is there is no intention to act on the TRRC report because the president sees no way of winning this election if he does not go into a coalition with the APRC,” said Faal. “And the APRC will not accept to go into a coalition with him if the president will act on a report which suggests that Jammeh will be taken to justice.”
If this turns out to be true, it will be a big blow for victims, who have pinned their hopes on the report of the TRRC to start the process of justice for their suffering.
For more than two years, Gambia’s truth commission was the centre of attention in the small West African country. Decades-old crimes were investigated, with the commission receiving into evidence 2,600 statements and hearing 393 witness testimonies.
The TRRC confirmed that at least 250 people were summarily executed on Jammeh’s orders. “And that (250 killed) does not include the enforced disappeared,” said Faal in his closing remarks on May 28, 2021, when the commission ended its public hearings and prepared to embark on preparing its report.
Faal has completed his work at the commission and declared his candidature in the country’s presidential election.
Amnesty for Jammeh?
However, it has not been all smooth sailing for President Barrow and his new political alliance. Several Gambians and political parties have expressed their outrage at the agreement between the NPP and the APRC.
There was trouble closer to home when Barrow’s strategic communications adviser, Fatou Jaw-Manneh, resigned.
“I can’t entirely agree with the conceptual framework of the alliance, and it is my firm belief that this particular alliance undermines the integrity of your government and jeopardises everything I stand for,” she said. The former journalist and activist lived in exile in the US during Jammeh’s reign.
Alagie Kijera, a “prominent” NPP supporter in the diaspora, also abandoned the party. He was the founder of the Barrow Fans Club.
Perhaps gauging the reaction to the president’s latest political manoeuvres, Justice Minister Dawda Jallow was quick to distance his department from the fallout, saying his ministry was not privy to the agreement between NPP and APRC.
“As far as I am concerned, it (NPP-APRC alliance) is not treated as a government or a state matter… It has no direct impact on the policy that I am in charge of, and that is transitional justice.
“Transitional justice is still on course and we are anticipating the submission of the report, and plans are in progress as to what is to be done when we receive the report,” he said.
On September 6, Jallow met with the officials of the Victims Centre, a watchdog established by the victims of the former dictator’s regime to pursue justice for his alleged crimes.
The centre had described the new alliance as “shocking” and “deplorable”, and expressed concern about the government’s commitment to bring justice to victims.
Jallow assured the victims of the government’s commitment to ensure justice for Jammeh-era crimes.
“We are preparing for that (post-TRRC prosecutions). We are involved in consultations. We are expecting support in that direction… Those who are recommended for prosecution, of course, we will work towards prosecuting them, unless the government decides otherwise,” said Jallow.
Keen observers of the situation in The Gambia could not have failed to notice the rider to the minister’s assurances.
On speculation that the APRC was negotiating a blanket amnesty for Jammeh and his cronies, President Barrow told a presenter on local radio station Star FM that he did not have the power to make the decision on his own.
This contradicts his new partners’ statements. APRC spokesperson Dodou Jah told journalists that key among his party’s conditions for supporting the NPP was to ensure “the unconditional return of the former president”.
NPP went into damage control mode soon after news of the alliance was made public, issuing a statement to clarify that the agreement had nothing to do with Jammeh’s return or amnesty.
It explained that the alliance was prompted by the “growing necessity of working together in the best interest of national security, reconciliation, unity and peace for the common good of our diverse people”.
But the call for reconciliation did not go down well.
“APRC seems to want to reconcile without accepting the atrocities that were linked to Jammeh. But this is different from what the TRRC was tasked to do. They were to investigate human rights violations, provide reparation, and promote healing and reconciliation. But …to ignore the victim-centred process and push for reconciliation of leaders shows that instead of pushing against the Never Again, they are pushing for impunity,” said Gambian academic Sait Matty Jaw.
Popular opinion in favour of Jammeh’s prosecution
Barrow’s latest political strategy comes at an awkward time, when a study by Afrobarometer, a Pan-African, nonpartisan survey research network, found that almost three quarters (73 per cent) of Gambians want the perpetrators of the crimes and human rights abuses of Jammeh’s regime tried in court, a five percentage point increase compared to 2018.
The litmus test for President Barrow’s commitment to ensuring justice for the victims will be how he deals with the TRRC report, which is expected to be handed to him on September 30. When he first took office, his actions brought hope of justice for the abuses of his predecessor’s regime. The setting up of the truth commission went a long way in winning him credibility among many Gambians. However, his latest political alliance with Jammeh’s party, which has spent most of the past two years trying to demonise the TRRC as a propaganda scheme designed to defame its leader, has put a pall on that initial optimism.
The leaders of APRC have never hidden their suspicion of the truth commission. In July 2021, shortly before the initial date for the release of the TRRC report, the party organised a protest in Banjul and handed a petition to Justice Minister Jallow to deliver to President Barrow. Although its contents were never made public, the party made it clear that it was pushing to have the commission’s recommendations thrown out and the release of former Jammeh-era minister Yankuba Touray, who was convicted for his role in the murder of former Finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay in June 1995.
APRC leader Fabakary Tombong Jatta did not mince his words: “We want when the TRRC’s final report is out, let it be put in a wastepaper basket just like the Constitutional Review Commission report.”
MOU cannot violate law
However, all is not lost for those who seek justice for the Jammeh regime’s human rights violations. Analysts point to the law that established the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, which dictates that the TRRC must submit its report to the president of The Gambia, the United Nations Secretary-General, and certain regional and international organisations. Within six months, the president is expected to issue a position paper outlining what he intends to do about the recommendations. This means that the TRRC recommendations are not just a domestic affair, but are also subject to regional and international scrutiny.
Although the terms of the agreement between the president’s party and APRC are not known, analysts say if they promise Jammeh amnesty, then they are against the spirit of the commission’s Act and other laws, both local and international.
According to the Act that set up the truth commission, it can grant amnesty to individuals, but not for crimes “which form part of a crime against humanity”.
Reed Brody, an international human rights lawyer working with the Gambian victims, was optimistic that justice for Jammeh-era crimes was within reach.
“International law is very clear that governments have a legal duty to investigate and prosecute torture and crimes against humanity, and that these crimes can’t be amnestied. The Gambian Supreme Court decision denying immunity to Yankuba Touray suggests that the court might not look favourably on attempts to shield government officials from prosecution.
“Courts in countries like Argentina, El Salvador, and Uganda have refused to allow amnesties to block human rights trials. Any amnesty also wouldn’t stop other countries whose citizens were murdered, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, or indeed any country with jurisdiction, from undertaking an investigation. Chile had granted former dictator Augusto Pinochet amnesty at home, but he was still arrested in London.
“Nor would any amnesty stop the ICC from investigating. The new ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan has said that he agrees that “justice must happen” for Jammeh-era crimes. So, if Gambia failed to act, the ICC could step in.”
Perhaps there is still hope for justice for the victims of Jammeh’s brutality, but will it come from The Gambia?