By Kebba Jeffang
Events in the recent past have dimmed hopes of justice among victims of human rights violations in The Gambia.
The release of the much-awaited report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission has been inexplicably delayed yet again, and this time with no date given for its expected release.
President Adama Barrow, who at the beginning of his term in 2017, promised justice and reparations for the victims, seems to be preoccupied with winning a second term during the elections scheduled for December 4. His commitment to see justice done seems to have waned as he builds alliances with some of the parties that have been accused of presiding over the violations and protecting the perpetrators.
Indeed, it seems to be a time of despair for the victims, human rights defenders, and all citizens who want to see the violators punished and impunity discouraged.
But one group is not ready to give up yet. Civil society groups in The Gambia are determined to see perpetrators punished, and victims get justice and reparation.
“Given these concerns and to support the process of implementation, CSOs are currently creating platforms and strategies to empower and position themselves to pressure the government and all stakeholders to implement the recommendations,” Madi Jobarteh, a human rights defender, explained.
The organisations have devised various channels to push the government to ensure that justice is delivered to the victims. Among the efforts is a comprehensive civil society road map of a host of critical actions necessary to not only advocate implementation of the recommendations of the TRRC report, but also to engage other stakeholders to support the process. These interested groups include political parties, the private sector, traditional and religious leaders, communities, as well as international partners.
“We have a work plan, which we have shared with members of the TRRC and the public. Basically, it showcases what we want to do as civil society. We are no longer just going to sit and wait; we are going to be more proactive this time round, even before the TRRC sets out its recommendations,” said John Njie, the chairman of The Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (TANGO), the umbrella body of civil society organisations in The Gambia.
According to him, CSOs want to have a frank discussion with the National Assembly and the executive arm of the government on the way forward.
“The issue of cherry-picking who to prosecute and who to let off can be looked at from both sides. The government will tell you that they are not cherry-picking, but I think for people to believe them they must give proper reasons why certain people should be exempted by telling us the processes employed in getting to those conclusions. We are engaging the government throughout the process to ensure that the best interest of the victims is guaranteed,” Njie explained.
He added that the organisations had already met with officials of the TRRC to discuss the road map and were waiting for a reply to their request to meet the president.
According to the TANGO chief, one of the activities on the road map is a ‘Standing with the TRRC’ march scheduled to take place around the time the commission will submit its report to the president.
As part of the programme, TANGO and the Victims Centre organised protesters to march in Banjul on October 16, 2021 to demand justice and remind the government about the ‘Never Again’ campaign, which aims to end human rights violations in the country.
The demonstrations prompted a reaction from the government, which said it was committed to completing the process started in 2017.
“The ministry reiterates its continuous support for all victims of human rights violations and its commitment to the course of the TRRC and justice… The office of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice wishes to assure all the victims, the Gambians and partners alike that the government of The Gambia remains fully committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the TRRC in the best interest of the Gambian people without fear or favour,” a statement it issued on the day of the protests said.
The government dismissed questions about its perceived lack of commitment to implementing the TRRC recommendations.
Sheriff Kijera, the head of the Victims Centre, which coordinates the registration victims and their search for justice and reparations, said his organisation would mobilise both local and international civil society groups, especially from the region whose citizens were victimised by the Yahya Jammeh regime.
“We are lobbying international support and Ghana is pretty much concerned to see that Yahya Jammeh is brought to justice. We will put pressure on the government of The Gambia because we are part of the Gambian civil society, which is also concerned about the implementation of the TRRC recommendations.”
Kijera said the nature of the cases before the TRRC make it different from the Janneh Commission, which dealt with financial crimes.
“The TRRC is dealing with human rights crimes that involved the killing of more than 240 innocent people. That cannot just go unpunished. This has an international element that could be tried within the international jurisdiction.”
Kijera, who insisted that Jammeh must have his day in court, said the expectations of the victims were high as they waited for the TRRC report and the actions of the government after its release.
Jobarteh said he expects the commission’s final report to present a list of the names of the people to be prosecuted and the crimes they are accused of.
“I also expect to see the reparations provided to victims, including places and structures to be renamed or constructed to memorialise atrocities and victims,” he explained.
The human rights defender warned about the dangers of covering up past abuses, saying it is important for the CSOs to pursue justice to its logical end.
“They need to insist on and ensure implementation of the truth commission’s recommendations. This is informed by the fact that if such recommendations are not implemented fully, fairly, and transparently, the tendency for the society to go back to its dark past is high.”
The African Network against Extra-judicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED) in October 2020 started its advocacy work for full and effective implementation of the TRRC recommendations through the National Dialogue on Forgiveness, Accountability, and Healing programme.
“The TRRC has said there will be recommendations for amnesty, but I believe there will also be recommendations for prosecution and compensation. We expect the TRRC’s final report to capture all the human rights violations, as described in the testimonies heard by the commission, and that the information will be useful in the making of the recommendations to ensure accountability for the crimes committed by the state and/or state agents,” said Sira Ndow, ANEKED’s country director.
Others are looking at pursuing an international process, especially for the former president.
William Nyarko, the coordinator of the Jammeh2Justice Ghana Coalition, said victims were no longer sure about justice in local courts because they were convinced that they had been betrayed by President Barrow, who has allied himself with Jammeh’s APRC.
“The coalition echoes the disappointment of the victims. The alliance is a bad signal for justice and accountability to all victims who suffered egregious violations of their human rights on the orders of former president Jammeh. It is also a signal that Jammeh will not be prosecuted in The Gambia if President Barrow is re-elected in December,” he said.
“There is a need for victims and international justice advocates to look towards securing justice and reparations at other forums, including a regional, hybrid court to be established or the International Criminal Court, which is the court of last resort,” Nyarko, who is also the executive director of Africa Centre for International Law and Accountability, explained.
Kijera agrees. “As far as we are concerned, some of the cases are international crimes and they cannot be forgiven. They must be taken before a court of law. They have reached the threshold of crimes against humanity. Yahya Jammeh and all those who committed these atrocities will have their day in court.”
International human rights lawyer Reed Brody is optimistic that justice will be served, and that Jammeh and his accomplices will be punished for their crimes.
“Witnesses with first-hand knowledge have implicated Yahya Jammeh at the TRRC in murder, torture, rape, and other terrible crimes and we expect that by its mandate, the TRRC will recommend the prosecution of Jammeh and the other most abusive officials. Then it will be up to the Gambian government to ensure that Jammeh and his accomplices are held to account. Truth-telling has made a vital contribution, but it’s not the end of the road.”
He asked the government to publish, disseminate, and begin the process of implementing the recommendations as soon as the report is released.
“I know that the victims and civil society will be making an issue of the TRRC recommendations in the upcoming elections, asking each of the candidates and parties to commit to putting the TRRC’s recommendations into practice.”
He said that if The Gambia and the other countries whose citizens were killed by Jammeh’s Junglers came together to push for the trial, it would be possible to obtain justice.
“President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea said he would ‘protect’ Jammeh, and we even saw them dancing together, but in the face of pressure from The Gambia and other African countries, I don’t think Obiang would want to stand in the way of justice,” the lawyer added.