By Journalists For Justice Team
May 2022 holds a special place in the calendar of events that are shaping the transitional justice process in The Gambia. By the end of this month the government is expected to release a “white paper”, detailing how it intends to tackle the recommendations contained in the report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).
“We are in a transitional process. We have completed the truth telling and established the fact. We have received the report of the Truth Commission and the government is working on the white paper. Now what happens after the white paper is simply the position paper of the government,’’ Dawda A. Jallow, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, was quoted in the media speaking at an international criminal law and human rights training session for legal staff from his ministry in April 2022.
But few victims and human rights defenders are confident about the authorities’ commitment to ensure genuine justice and reparations for those who suffered under the dictatorial regime of former president Yahya Jammeh. The enthusiasm and hope that greeted the start of the transitional justice process with a new administration that promised truth and justice have steadily dwindled over the intervening years. Gambians and victims of the dictatorship have been subject to a long list of broken promises and disappointed hopes.
One long-standing concern has been the current administration’s insistence on retaining ties with its predecessor, keeping in office people who have been adversely mentioned in connection with the former regime’s violations.
As the December 2021 presidential elections approached, human rights defenders and victims’ families expressed concern as the incumbent administration courted Jammeh’s political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC), and even got into a coalition with it with the ultimate aim of helping to secure Barrow a second term.
And the trend has continued, with the president appointing Jammeh loyalists Fabakary Tombong Jatta and Seedy K. Njie as Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly respectively. Jatta, commonly referred to by his initials FTJ, is a former majority leader in the National Assembly and has been heading the former ruling party, APRC, since Jammeh fled into exile. Njie is a former Information minister in Jammeh’s administration. The two are among the former leader’s fiercest defenders.
Jatta has been consistently opposed to the transitional justice process, criticising the Janneh Commission as well as the TRRC. He was once quoted famously stating that the TRRC report should be tossed into the dust bin. He also supported Jammeh’s efforts to cling to power after Barrow defeated him in the December 2016 elections, even tabling a bill in Parliament proposing the declaration of a state of emergency to enable Jammeh to consolidate power.
He has wasted no time since his latest appointment to expound on his pet subject – championing the return of Jammeh – whom he insists should be accorded all the honours a retired president deserves.
“Presidents can be judged for their actions, omissions, errors or crimes. However, this must be done with respect and dignity,” he has been quoted as saying.
He has also renewed his opposition to the reintroduction of the draft constitution in the National Assembly, insisting that certain clauses be changed first. He claimed the document contains “a number of contradictions and obstacles intended to oppress and reduce the freedom of action of our leaders”.
Outrage met news of the appointment of FTJ and Njie. Political and human rights activist Pa Samba Jow was reported as describing it as a “mockery” and an “insult” to the former president’s victims. He accused the two of abating and sanctioning Jammeh’s “…raping, imprisonment, torture, exiling and killing of innocent Gambians”.
In a protest later to President Barrow, the Centre for Victims of Human Rights Violations reminded him of his promise to ensure transitional justice and accountability for the violations of the past when he was campaigning for his first term.
The letter, signed by the centre’s chairman, Sheriff Muhammed Kijera, expressed concern about the fate of the expected white paper and its implementation, and doubts that victims would ever get justice now that proponents of the former regime are in control of the National Assembly, which he said was responsible for “making laws, approving budgets, and scrutinising institutions that are responsible for the implementation of the TRRC report”.
“It is obvious that as Speaker, Fabakary will not provide the necessary leadership and support to the implementation of your white paper or the TRRC report itself, simply because Fabakary and Seedy have glaringly showed their utter disdain for the TRRC and the entire transitional justice process.”
“We cannot allow the recommendations of the TRRC to go in vain,” warned Baba Hydara, the son of journalist Deyda Hydara, one of Jammeh’s murder victims.
Fatoumata Sandeng, the spokesperson of the Jammeh 2 Justice campaign, said the accountability process for crimes in The Gambia does not offer hope for justice.
“Speaker of the National Assembly means he is the third in command in The Gambia. When the president and the vice-president are not there, you have this guy as the leader of The Gambia. That is how serious the situation is right now,” she said.
The appointments came as victims were still recovering from another blow, this time dealt by the truth commission itself when it recommended amnesty for several people, among them three former soldiers its own report had said should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
“All the persons mentioned above bear criminal responsibility for these crimes as they were all willing participants in a common plan to kill the victims,” said the report.
Captain Sanna Sabally, a former vice-chairman of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council (AFPRC), the junta that gained control of The Gambia after the military coup d’état of July 1994 that brought Jammeh to power, is prominently mentioned among the abusers of those early days. Yet he is one of five people the TRRC wants shielded from prosecution.
Sabally publicly admitted responsibility for his part in the killing of 11 soldiers when he appeared before the TRRC in April 2019 during its public hearings. The soldiers were suspected of plotting a counter-coup in November 1994.
The families of the victims and survivors of the brutal tyranny did not agree with the TRRC. Their rejection of the recommendations, especially amnesty for the killers, was swift and strong.
“Sanna does not deserve to be granted amnesty. Sanna Sabally killed my husband. He killed 11 innocent people just like that. What the TRRC has done is not right. Me and other victims… we are heartbroken. We are angry and we all feel helpless. This concept [amnesty] is wrong and I do not understand it. I am very unhappy,” cried Awa Njie, the widow of Lt Abdoulie Dot Faal, during an interview with Journalists For Justice (JFJ) soon after news of the TRRC recommendations broke out in March 2022.
Fatou Manneh, a sister of Lt Bakary Manneh, another victim, echoed Njie’s sentiments. “The TRRC should have never allowed Sanna to apply for amnesty in the first place. He killed 11 innocent people in cold blood.”
The other four beneficiaries of the amnesty recommendation are Major Bubacarr Bah, who was implicated in the torture of political detainees in 1995; Zackaria Darboe and Baboucarr Mboob, junior officers involved in the execution of soldiers accused of involvement in the November 1994 coup plot; and Pa Alieu Gomez, who was involved in the June 1995 murder of former Finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay.
Former soldier, Alagie Kanyi, who confessed to heavy involvement in killings in 1994 and 1995, was offered immunity
“My brother’s wife still cries for him, his son grew up without knowing his father; they lost a husband and a father. Sanna is the reason I lost someone that can never be replaced,” Manneh said angrily.
Her idea of justice is clear: “If someone commits a crime they pay for that crime. I want the perpetrators who killed my brother to suffer just like they made my family and I to suffer.”
To Njie, the concept of amnesty in this case is warped: “Amnesty, it seems, is freeing perpetrators who have committed crimes against humanity. Amnesty protects them from being jailed for their crimes.”
The two women did not accept TRRC’s attempts to explain its decision on Sabally – that he was also later tortured and jailed by the administration of his former comrade-at-arms, Jammeh, and that he was remorseful about his earlier actions.
“When he was testifying at the TRRC he said, ‘when you cut the head of a snake, the body becomes useless’. I will never forget this statement as he made it look like he was boasting or was proud of killing my husband and the others,” said Njie.
Manneh did not buy the argument of Sabally’s suffering as justification for amnesty.
“Yes, it is true that Sanna was victimised during his arrest, but I wish he had given my brother the opportunity to also go through the same thing instead of just killing him in cold blood. Sanna suffered, but he is alive and able to see his family, while my family is still mourning my brother.”
The strong reactions that greeted news of the truth commission’s recommendation of amnesty for some of the people who have confessed to killing and torturing Gambians did not come as a surprise considering the push for accountability by victims and survivors, as well as civil society organisations that has followed the proceedings of the TRRC.
And the law seems pretty clear on the question of clemency. According to Section 19 (1) of the TRRC Act, persons may qualify for amnesty if they make a full revelation of their involvement in human rights violations and express remorse for their conduct. But Section 19 (3) further clarifies: “Amnesty shall not apply to acts that form part of a crime against humanity.”
In the wake of the backlash, the TRRC’s Amnesty Committee said apart from the justifications for amnesty approvals given in its report, Sabally’s crimes precede the Rome Statute and cannot be applied retroactively.
The Victims Centre urged the government to reject the recommendation for Sabally’s amnesty, saying his crime of killing 11 soldiers is tantamount to crimes against humanity.
“Crimes that equate to crimes against humanity cannot be granted amnesty, so I don’t know how they came to that conclusion of granting Sanna Sabally amnesty,” said Kijera.
“We were baffled that the TRRC recommended amnesty for Sanna Sabally, who showed no remorse for the killings he had done,” said Fatoumata Sandeng.
It has been six months since the TRRC released its final report containing its recommendations, and May 2022 is now here. Hopefully, the white paper, which the law dictates the government should prepare, should be out before the month ends. Still , questions abound about the Barrow administration’s commitment to ensure truth and justice. For the victims, the government’s past actions, and they are plentiful, do not offer much hope. There is the stalled constitutional review process that saw Parliament fail to pass new laws to replace some of the oppressive ones that were used to victimise citizens. There is the lack of action on the recommendations of the Janneh Commission, which wanted the former president and his allies made to return millions of dollars stolen from the public coffers. There is the continued retention in the administration of persons adversely mentioned in connection with past violations.
It seems hopeless, but victims, survivors, and human rights defenders cannot afford to abandon hopes of justice and reparation.
Reported by Janet Sankale and Mary Wasike in Nairobi, Kenya, and Siga Ndure in Banjul, The Gambia
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org