The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission set up by President Adama Barrow to investigate human rights violations during the 22-year reign of former Head of State, Yahya Jammeh has began in The Gambia. The aim is to ensure that such violations never occur again. Will it succeed? Desmond Davies reports.
One of the 180 odd properties that have been seized from the former Gambian president is now being used as the headquarters for the commission interrogating alleged atrocities during his 22 years in power. With over 70 members of staff and 11 Commissioners in place, everything is ready and witnesses started recounting their experiences this month.
In an ironic twist, the TRRC will be sitting at the Dunes Resort in Banjul, a former luxury beach hotel said to among the 188 properties that were owned by Jammeh that have now been confiscated. The Executive Secretary of the TRRC, Dr Baba Galleh Jallow, a journalist and academic, is overseeing an exercise that is likely to be an emotional roller coaster.
For instance, there are mixed feelings over the Jammeh era. There are many Gambians who believe that he should not be held accountable for excesses by over exuberant members of the police force, and which might not have been sanctioned by him.
In another twist of irony, Jammeh’s supporters point to the incident in June 2018 at Faraba Banta when the Gambian police used live ammunition at civilians protesting against mining activities. Three were killed. Should Barrow himself be held responsible for these killings, Jammeh’s supporters ask.
But in Barrow’s case, he visited the hospital where the injured were being cared for, and ordered an inquiry into the incident. Five members of the police were arrested. Jammeh never made such visits, the ex-President’s opponents argue.
The main goal of the TRRC is to ensure that Gambians do not suffer the similar human rights abuses, conducted allegedly under Jammeh, in future. In this regard the Commission is running a Never Again campaign to change the political culture to make it “hard for gross human rights violations and impossible for dictatorship to prevail” in the country again.
To show that he takes the TRRC seriously, Jallow despatched a strongly-worded open letter to Barrow after the Faraba incident. He asked: “How can we purport to right the wrongs of the past when we are seeing a repeat of those very same wrongs in the present? It is never right for the police to open fire on unarmed civilians, however tense and volatile the situation.”
So, as the hearings are about to start, potential witnesses are being lined up to appear before the TRRC after being identified by its Research and Investigations Unit in conjunction with the Lead Counsel. These witnesses were “associated” with the July 22, 1994 coup led by a then Lieutenant Jammeh.
This is the starting point of the hearings, which will then work through year by year until January 2017 when Jammeh left the country. Various thematic hearings will focus on events involving human rights abuses during the Jammeh era.
No presumption of guilt
However, Jallow points out, the focus will not be only on Jammeh during that period. “Who is going to be called before the Commission will depend on whose names come out of the testimonies that are to be given,” he says. “We are not presuming that anyone is guilty of anything as of now.
“Everything will come out from the evidence that will be tendered before the Commission. But during the investigations if people are named they will be called to appear before the Commission,” he added.
“So, it’s not just Jammeh. Jammeh was the leader of the coup and he emerged as the President so we have to have a starting point.”
The evidence gathering process involves 17 statement-takers who have been talking to people already identified by the TRRC. Once statements are taken, these are passed on to the Research and Investigations Unit for validation and then sent to the Lead Counsel who will then present them to the Commission, which will then determine which witnesses to call.
“We don’t want to rush this process,” Jallow said. “We have to get things right.”
Reparations roll out?
Jallow himself suffered under the Jammeh regime as a journalist, with his newspaper fire-bombed. He was eventually forced into exile to the US in 2000, returning only in 2017 after ex-President Jammeh left The Gambia.
While Gambians are waiting for the hearings to start, the reparations aspect of the TRRC is under way. For example, a young girl named Bintou, who dropped out of school in 2017 because her widowed mother could no longer afford her fees, is going back to school, courtesy of funding from the TRRC.
Her father was the only Gambian allegedly killed by a Gambian para-military unit alongside 44 Ghanaians and several Nigerian illegal immigrants in 2005.
Bintou’s mother was seven months pregnant with her when her father died, so she does not know him. Now Bintou is happy to return to school after the Commission, through its Victims Support Fund, decided to pay for her education to the tune of D15,000 ($??) a year.
“What we are doing is that we are not waiting for the end of the process to start implementing some of the reparations,” Jallow said. The TRRC Act allows for this.
Setting up the TRRC has been a tedious process. Its main objectives are to “create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights from July 1994 to January 2017, in order to…promote healing and reconciliation…”
The TRRC Act also mandates the Commission to respond to the needs of the victims and provide victims “with an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations and abuses suffered.”
Jallow puts the whole exercise succinctly: “In essence then, the overriding mandate of the TRRC is so ensure justice for victims and promote national healing but also to prevent a recurrence of dictatorship and gross human rights violations in The Gambia.”