Now that the final report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission in The Gambia is out and its recommendations known, the families of the victims of former president Yahya Jammeh’s 22-year tyranny are more than ever determined to obtain justice for their kin.
Their hopes are embodied by Baba Hydara, the son of respected journalist and founder of The Point newspaper, who is firm that he and his colleagues at the Gambia Victims Centre will not relent in their fight for justice and are determined to see that the government honours the work done by the TRRC.
“We are hoping that in the coming months, the government will do the necessary, honouring the work of the TRRC and aiding the victims in their healing process,” he said, and acknowledged the work of the truth commission, which he said had invested “very long hours of deliberations to make this outcome possible”.
Sheriff Kijera, the chairman of the Gambia Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations, echoed the sentiments, saying his organisation expects the TRRC recommendations to be fully implemented.
“We know that people have been recommended for prosecution, especially Yahya Jammeh and the other members of the military junta that took power on July 22, 1994. Majority of the victims expect those members to be brought to justice, along with others who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocious crimes committed during Jammeh’s regime,” he said.
The human rights activist added that expectations are high, especially in the victims’ community, that there will be accountability for the crimes.
“We know from the statement of the minister of Justice that some of the perpetrators can apply for amnesty, but this must not include crimes against humanity, such as murder and extrajudicial executions,” Kijera added.
While publicly releasing the report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) on December 24, 2021 at the Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara International Conference Centre in Bijilo, Attorney General and Minister of Justice Dawda A. Jallow gave any alleged perpetrator “who has previously appeared before the commission and made a full disclosure of his or her involvement in human rights violations and abuses and has expressed remorse” 14 days to apply to the commission for amnesty.
The commission has six weeks to review the applications and present a report to the president. The law does not allow amnesty for perpetrators of crimes against humanity.
The government is expected to review the TRRC report, as well as any recommendations for amnesty, and issue a White Paper by May 25, 2022.
“The TRRC recommendations have been a subject of speculation for a lot of people. No one knew what they were going to recommend.… The minister stating that the government will show an interest in pursuing the recommendations is hopeful for us. We do hope that the government actually implements the recommendations of the TRRC, especially when it comes to prosecutions and various forms of reparations for victims, as well as setting up a national healing and reconciliation framework for The Gambia,” said Zainab Lowe, whose brother, Lieutenant Ebou Lowe, was one of the Jammeh-era victims.
“We urge the government to consider justice and reparations for us because we have endured hardship and sad lives all these years. We are hopeful that these objectives will be achieved. We call on the government to think of us, victims, and our losses, and allow the process of justice to go on,” Mbaya Demba, the widow of Lieutenant Gibril Saye, pleaded. Her husband was arrested and disappeared in 1994.
“It was a good feeling hearing the government make the declaration and a hopeful signal that together, no matter how long it takes, we will get justice,” said Sirra Ndow, whose uncle, Sulayman Ndow, was disappeared.
Apart from the families of the victims, the country is also waiting to see the government’s next step in the transitional justice process and particularly how it intends to deal with the commission’s findings and recommendations.
It is expected to produce, within six months of the president receiving the TRRC final report, a “White Paper” on.
Of particular interest, not just to The Gambia but also to the international community, will be whether Jammeh and the other people identified in the TRRC report as being the most responsible for the human rights violations will be held accountable by the government of President Adama Barrow, and if so, what form of judicial process this will take. One of the TRRC’s recommendations is that Jammeh and his co-conspirators face a form of internationalised tribunal and answer charges of crimes against humanity.
There has been concern about the political will of the government of President Barrow to act decisively against his predecessor, especially after he formed an alliance with Jammeh’s former political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), as he fought to win a second term in the presidential elections of December 4.
Although the terms of the alliance were never publicly revealed, unconfirmed reports claimed that the conditions included extending amnesty to the former president to enable him to return to Banjul and the unfreezing of the assets and bank accounts of APRC, which enabled Jammeh’s reign of terror over West Africa’s smallest country for two decades. During the political campaigns that preceded the elections, some adversely mentioned members and supporters of the Jammeh regime publicly wooed voters to choose the president, proclaiming that re-electing Barrow meant that the TRRC report would not be implemented.
During the campaign period, President Barrow was seen wining and dining General Lang Tombong Tamba, a former army chief who has been named among the people who should be prosecuted for torture and other crimes against members of the Armed Forces and civilians, and who had become a bulwark for the NPP-APRC alliance.
When Barrow’s victory was announced, a celebratory video surfaced of Jammeh’s guards who were living in exile in Equatorial Guinea with the former president. And a few days after the report was made public, the government announced that it had appointed a special team to facilitate the return of nine of the guards to The Gambia “to reunite with their families”. They were among 15 people who were welcomed back and included Lieutenant General Sulayman Badjie, a former powerful state guard commander. The TRRC has recommended that Badjie be prosecuted for bearing joint responsibility, together with Jammeh and Bora Colley, for the killing of Ello Jallow.
“While the necessary administrative processes have begun, in order to satisfy all security concerns, we once again welcome the returnees back to The Gambia as fellow citizens,” said a statement from a joint national security unit handling the matter.
It is ironical that Barrow’s victory seemed to have signalled the return of Jammeh loyalists from years in exile. The Gambian public is watching to see their fate, as well as what will happen to other officials who continue to hold high-profile positions in the Barrow government, yet have been listed as bearing responsibility for some of the crimes the TRRC uncovered.
Observers who are concerned that victims’ expectations for justice may prove to be elusive read Justice Minister Jallow’s failure to state a firm government position on the recommendations for prosecution as an indication of official reluctance to act.
“If any recommendations are done regarding justice, the government will look into them in the White Paper,” he said in response to journalists’ questions about justice for victims. “Anything that is handed over to us regarding the report, the outcome will have to patiently wait for the White Paper,” he added.
The TRRC Act tasks the government to publish a “White Paper” regarding its position on its intended actions within six months of the submission of the report.
“The commission operated independently of the government. Whatever they handed to us, we will urge the public to allow us to closely study it. Our position on every single issue in the report will be known when the White Paper is out,” Jallow said.
The minister’s sentiments echoed those of President Barrow, who has lately emphasised reconciliation and reparations over judicial justice, quite contrary to the campaign of rights and victim defenders, who say that although the two are important, they are not a viable alternative to justice and deterrence for the violations outlined in the TRRC report.
Now that the way is clear for his presidency for the next five years with the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a petition against his election, Gambians, advocacy groups, and the international community will be waiting to see what President Barrow chooses to do about the abuses of his predecessor’s regime. Barrow often answered the question about what he will do about the TRRC recommendations with the refrain that the final report was not yet out. Now the report is no longer an excuse.
Fatou Baldeh, the founder of Women in Liberation and Leadership, is a proponent of justice in addition to reconciliation and reparation. “For a lot of victims, reparation is not just monetary,” she said, adding that although there are no longer cases of extra-judicial killings in The Gambia, other abuses, such as sexual and gender-based violence continue unabated. She attributed this to lack of deterrent policies and measures to discourage perpetrators. She said pro-active policies should be formulated and enforced in order to avoid a repeat of the crimes that were committed against women in the Jammeh era.