Betrayed and disappointed. These two words aptly describe the sentiments of the victims of human rights violations in The Gambia who had hoped that the government of President Adama Barrow would keep his promise to deliver justice.
Many victims are still trying to accept the fact that their presumed saviour of just a few years ago is now wining and dining their tormentors. But the fact that the president’s National People’s Party (NPP) is now working with the former ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) in his bid to retain power in the December 2021 presidential election is inescapable.
Also hard to ignore is the fear that their hopes that President Barrow will implement the recommendations contained in the much-awaited report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) are likely to go unfulfilled. And especially because some of the recommendations are bound to directly implicate some of his new-found allies.
His tone about the TRRC recommendations has become markedly less firm and assuring than it was during his campaign in 2016 and the first months of his presidency. “When we receive the report, my government will sit and discuss it. It’s not going to be my personal decision; it’s going to be the decision of my government,” The Point quoted him as saying on November 4, 2021, shortly after presenting his nomination papers for the presidential election to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) at Election House along the Bertil Harding Highway.
The victims can never forget that it is the APRC that maintained former president Yahya Jammeh in power, allowing him 22 years to preside over a regime that did not hesitate to kill, torture, disappear, detain, and rape scores of citizens. Yet that is the party Barrow, on whom they had heaped all their hopes of justice, is now closely cooperating with.
How can they forget when the president himself keeps reminding them of this new reality? Since forming the alliance with the APRC, his tune has changed from promising justice at all costs to preaching reconciliation across the country. He has been particularly keen to insinuate that his political union with the former ruling party is for the citizens’ own good, the good of the country.
“It is in the supreme interest of reconciliation in this country. It is in the interest of national security because it will ensure peace and stability in this country. Therefore, I commend and welcome the APRC party for joining this coalition,” he said at a political rally in Farafenni shortly after the September announcement of the alliance.
Peace and stability
He denounced as selfish the opponents and critics of the alliance, who termed it a show of disrespect for the victims. And he was not shy to declare how it would benefit him.
“All these talks are selfish and politically motivated because they fear that having an NPP and APRC alliance would be undefeatable. Let them leave me free because if they don’t know what will benefit me, I know what my benefits are. I want to tell APRC leaders that I am not the only one who is happy about this alliance, but the entire Gambia is happy,” he said, insisting that the alliance would foster national development.
He has repeated his justification of his alliance with Jammeh’s party at regular intervals. “APRC is a party and we are in alliance with them based on principles. APRC is a registered party and they are legally operating in this country and we are also a party that’s why we form an alliance with them. Our alliance with them is in the interest of the country and in the best interest of national security and in the best interest of national reconciliation,” he said after completing the task at IEC.
Observers had long noted that the president’s speeches during his campaign rallies, discreetly described as “meet-the-people tours” to satisfy the law since the official campaign period is officially slated for November 9 to December 2, conspicuously avoided keywords such as “justice” and “reparations”. He was also careful not to comment on unconfirmed reports that one of the conditions APRC insisted on for joining the alliance was that Jammeh get full amnesty and that he be allowed to return to The Gambia to enjoy all the privileges accorded to former heads of state.
Many victims believed Barrow when he promised that his administration would deliver justice. They remember the 2016 presidential elections, with Jammeh’s opponents using the long list of tragedies associated with his regime as a campaign tool against him. Barrow, who was then the opposition coalition candidate, outlined his campaign promise of setting up a truth commission to investigate the human rights violations and punish the perpetrators.
For some time, Gambians believed this was going to happen, especially when the new regime set up the TRRC, which started its operations in January, 2019. Gambians all over the world closely followed the hearings of the commission as they unearthed the abuses that included the extra-judicial killings of more than 240 people, torture, and disappearances.
The victims have anxiously been waiting for the final report of the TRRC, which closed its public hearings on May 28, 2021. Their hopes are high that the report will recommend appropriate measures of justice and reparation based on the testimonies of almost 400 witnesses.
In the beginning, Barrow appeared to consider the TRRC project to be a worthwhile cause, and his government even allocated 50 million dalasi to the victims support fund, promising more funds.
Sheriff Kijera, the chairman of the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations, or simply the Victims Centre, has an explanation for the president’s apparent change of heart.
“The president has a vested interest in pursuing his political ambition. He wants to get re-elected, so he is in an alliance with the APRC, which has many of Yahya Jammeh’s sympathisers. This is not in the best interest of the Gambian people and not in the best interest of justice as far as the victims are concerned,” he said.
And the Victims Centre and others passionate about getting justice are not willing to accept being short-changed.
“We are not going to relent in our efforts to hold the government accountable and we cannot see our sitting government forging an alliance with the predators that are responsible for the killings and many gruesome human rights violations meted out to Gambians during the Jammeh era. It is quite unacceptable, and we will not sit by and watch that happen,” Kijera warned.
Even before the alliance, Barrow had considerably softened his stance on his predecessor, apparently with an eye on winning votes from Jammeh’s supporters. Several members of the former regime who have been adversely mentioned at the TRRC hearings have been absorbed in his cabinet and security institutions. The president has ignored the report of the earlier Janneh Commission of Inquiry, which recommended a lifetime ban for some public officials implicated in financial misappropriation.
The best interest of justice
Fears that the recommendations of the TRRC might be ignored are worsened by past experience of how such investigations were treated. The Janneh Commission investigated the financial dealings of the former president and his associates, while the Faraba Commission probed the killing of Faraba community members by security forces during a stand-off over sand mining. None of their recommendations were satisfactorily implemented.
John Njie, the chairman of The Non-Governmental Organisations of The Gambia (TANGO) warned the president not to ignore the TRRC recommendations.
“We expect that when the recommendations are out the government will act upon them as soon as possible so that victims can get respite and closure, and be able to move forward,” he said.
Madi Jobarteh, a human rights defender, expressed similar concerns.
“The civil society is indeed highly concerned…and this is because there is every indication that President Barrow will not willingly and proactively implement these recommendations in full and within the shortest possible time. He has failed to conduct the necessary constitutional, legal, and institutional reforms as set out in his manifesto, and there is no guarantee that he will implement the TRRC recommendations,” he said.
Madi is worried that the problem could be even bigger. He is concerned by the fact that none of the prominent Gambian political parties has explicitly and unambiguously promised to implement the TRRC recommendations if their candidate wins the elections.
“Going into that election raises the level of concern as we see many of the key political parties, especially NPP and UDP, having key former regime enablers and APRC stalwarts among them,” he observed.