May 25. That is the day the Government White Paper on the Report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) was released. Gambians did not fail to notice the significance of this day because for two decades it was treated as special to celebrate the birthday of their former president, Yahya Jammeh. The stature of May 25 was elevated further when it was declared a public holiday to celebrate the African Day, which commemorates the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor of the African Union.
Many Gambians marvelled at the coincidence of it all. Jammeh liked to mark special occasions with parties and celebrations. The TRRC hearings laid bare some of the horrific things that happened at these state parties – our sisters, daughters, nieces, aunties were raped. Former beauty queen Toufah Jallow has described how the former president assaulted her at the State House as a religious ceremony was going on just a short distance away. To many observers, it must have seemed like poetic justice that the day former dictator Jammeh is alleged to have committed some of the most heinous human rights violations is also the day that might mark the beginning of reckoning for him as he is called to answer for his crimes.
But for sceptical Gambians who have become wary of the motivations of a government that seems obsessed with propping up its image, the release of the White Paper looked like just another one of the administration’s lofty, high-sounding, and elaborate public relations stunts. The government’s strategies and tactics have become all too familiar.
And even before the dust had settled on the release of the White Paper, a press statement from the State House in Banjul announced that President Barrow is flying out to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, to participate in the two-day African Union Extraordinary Humanitarian Summit and Extraordinary Summit on Terrorism and Unconstitutional Changes of Government. Equatorial Guinea, where former President Jammeh lives in exile. Coincidence? Many found the timing rather suspicious, especially since Barrow’s chief strategist, National Intelligence Agency (NIA) Director General Ousman Sowe, was included in his delegation.
Like many Gambians, I have in the past followed the debate about the Government White Paper that has swirled around Number 1 Marina Parade, the address of the State House. We watched as a number of approaches were proposed and dropped. Finally, the most obvious and popular plan won the day: the one with the ability to win public opinion and stimulate international confidence in the Barrow administration, thus attracting badly needed donor funds for new development plans.
But this grand plan comes at a cost. First, Jammeh has to accept his fate and face justice. This option seems to be gaining traction even among some of the former president’s supporters. In a WhatsApp audio message to his fellow Jammeh fans, retired General Lang Tombong Tamba appeared to blame the former president for his own perceived future tribulations. He argued that Jammeh “spoiled” his own chances of returning to Banjul when he refused to bless the cooperation deal between Barrow and his party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), which helped to secure a second term for the president.
In reality, prosecuting Jammeh is not a priority for Barrow because it would impact negatively on his own political survival, especially given that the former president’s political bases are key to his grassroots support in the country. This lends credence to widespread speculation that it is the president’s desire to come to some form of agreement with his predecessor, outside the widely publicised transitional justice processes, that would serve their mutual interests. Hence, to this school of thought, the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea offered the perfect opportunity to arrange a meeting between Jammeh and Barrow, particularly at this time as pressure is mounting for Jammeh to face justice with the release of the White Paper.
The objective of the meeting, if it ever took place, would not be, as some people have speculated, to negotiate Jammeh’s extradition to The Gambia to face justice for his perceived crimes. Rather, it would be to convince the exiled dictator to accept certain conditions as a prerequisite for his return as a retired statesman. One of these would be retirement from politics, a deal similar to the one Jammeh offered The Gambia’s first president, Sir Dawda Jawara, after he deposed him in 1994. The difference is that it worked well at the time because Jawara had no further interest in politics. This is not the case for Jammeh, who still believes he is a key player in the country’s future.
These elaborate plans and strategies are thought to be the brainchild of Barrow’s spy chief, Ousman Sowe, who is also the one the president would trust to execute the complex and risky manoeuvres it would take to pull off the grand scheme. And as a reward for his invaluable efforts, it seems Sowe, the master schemer, gets to be one of the lucky ones the government wants shielded from the TRRC’s recommendation that he be banned from holding public office for at least 10 years for destroying and concealing evidence of torture and other crimes at the NIA headquarters. The government rather lamely explained that this “crime”, alleged to have been committed in May 2017, fell outside the mandate of the TRRC, which was authorised to investigate crimes that happened between July 1994 and January 2017. The explanation ignores the fact that the crime has a bearing on cases the TRRC was investigating, and that the resultant absence of physical evidence would have the effect of making it difficult to conduct prosecutions or obtain convictions.
When I wrote several articles about the destruction of evidence at NIA on the pretext of reforming and rehabilitating the institution, I was called in for questioning by the Criminal Investigations Department. However, I was exonerated when TRRC visited the facility in February 2019 to verify the testimony of the agency’s former legal adviser, A.M.O. Badjie, and found that the cells had been cleaned and painted to remove the graffiti and other evidence of the torture had happened there.
Predictably, Sowe’s proposed pardon does not sit well with Gambians who expect justice. “NIA was the nerve centre of human rights violations. Wiping out that evidence at any time is at the centre of the TRRC’s mandate. To excuse someone for that offence is selective justice. Why destroy evidence if your intention was not to derail TRRC?” asked activist Madi Jobarteh.
Sowe seems to have made himself invaluable to the administration and is said to have done plenty behind the scenes to undermine the transitional justice process. This includes cabinet appointments and firings; promotions and retirements in the army; the security sector reforms; the “cheque book” intelligence diplomacy that he pursues rigorously between the Arab world and Banjul; and other political manoeuvres that have yielded good results for the president, including the coalition agreement that led to the picking of the previously unknown Barrow as the compromise opposition candidate in the 2016 elections, and whose results led to Jammeh’s exit in 2017. The agreement was that Barrow, as a transitional president, would step down after three years, but he had no qualms dishonouring the pact.
Indeed, where would Barrow be without Sowe?
Another controversial decision is the government’s attempt to clear Yankuba Sonko, a one-time police chief in Jammeh’s administration who presided over the arrest, beating, torture, prosecution, and imprisonment of perceived political opponents, including journalists and women activists. Barrow hired Sonko to serve as a special adviser to Interior Minister Ebrima Mballow, a relative of the president. The two were in charge during security agents’ attack on peaceful mining protests in Faraba Banta in June 2018 that led to the death of three people and prompted the first commission of inquiry into the “new” Gambia’s first civilian casualties of peaceful protests. Sonko was in August 2019 elevated to replace Mballow as Interior Minister, a position he held until he was replaced in Barrow’s new Cabinet.
The TRRC recommended that Sonko be banned from holding public office for 10 years for his role in covering up the killing of the West African migrants in 2005. Before he became Inspector General of Police in 2010, he was head of prosecutions for many years. He was influential in the police force and played a key role in the investigation of murders. However, he seems to be of such value to the administration that it only “partially accepts” the recommendation and refers it for further investigation in light of “potentially exculpatory evidencing submitted in favour of Yankuba Sonko”. It proposes to establish an international joint investigation team (Joint Forensic Investigation Team) based in The Gambia to investigate the killings.
It is noteworthy that the massacre of the West African migrants might be the only case with the potential of bringing Jammeh before an international tribunal as the murders have continued to generate interest in the victims’ home countries. However, with Sowe and Sonko in charge of such sensitive dockets, and in the face of the machinations to perpetuate Barrow’s stay in office, it is difficult to see any successful prosecution of Jammeh.
The contradictory stand of the government regarding amnesty and who deserves it has been challenged by former TRRC Lead Counsel Essa Faal, who thinks the government “erred” in rejecting the commission’s proposal to pardon former junta member Sanna Sabally, who gave evidence that assisted the TRRC.
“While I accept that Sanna Sabally does not merit an amnesty, I believe that the government erred in law when it rejected the recommended amnesty for him on wrong legal grounds. However, I support the outcome, but unfortunately it cannot be sustained legally as it is anchored on a point that is not based on the TRRC Act,” Faal argued on his Facebook page.
Another potential problem in the government’s selective granting of amnesty is its apparent U-turn on its promise, publicly announced, that it would extend amnesty to any witness who voluntarily gives evidence to aid the work of the commission.
It is undeniably commendable that the government has accepted more than 99 per cent of the TRRC recommendations and has pledged to act on them. However, its stated selective pardoning of a few favoured persons has aroused the suspicions of Gambians about its intentions.
Rejecting a few of the TRRC recommendations may appear insignificant. However, one cannot help but see how important these actions will be if the Barrow administration tries to do what many Gambians and human rights defenders have increasing feared in the past few years – play politics with the accountability of those who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities of Jammeh’s 22 years of dictatorship.
In the end, the government’s selective approach to justice has cast a shadow on its seemingly “genuine” promise and intention to deliver justice to the victims. And it is part of the reason citizens, and the world, are watching keenly to see what happens next in the transitional justice process in The Gambia.
Sanna Camara is Lead Consultant at MaiMedia Consulting. Email: Maimedia053@gmail.com