By Sanna Camara
Faced with the criticism and disappointment that greeted the release of its much-awaited final report last week after it became apparent that the contents would not be revealed, The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission is now trying to have the document made public.
The commission’s executive secretary, Dr Baba Galleh Jallow, said his office had reached out to the government to discuss the matter.
“Yes, I have spoken to one of my staff with a view to arranging a meeting with the minister of Justice next week. That is the main item on our agenda,” he said in an email on Saturday, November 27, in response to a question this writer had asked him. However, it was not clear whether he had secured an appointment or even whether the minister was agreeable to a meeting.
He appeared to be relying on the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) Act to have the report published. Section 30 (on the government’s obligations) sub-section 2 states: “Upon the President submitting the report… the minister shall in consultation with the executive secretary, make copies or summaries of it widely available to the public.”
Dr Jallow dismissed speculation about why the report had not been made public. “The TRRC Act stipulates that the report can only be made public a month after submission. That’s the only reason,” he said.
The TRRC handed the report to President Adama Barrow on Thursday, November 25. The event, which had been eagerly awaited by the victims of the abuses of the regime of former president Yahya Jammeh, human rights activists, and most Gambians, turned anti-climactic when details such as the recommendations, or even a summarised version, failed to materialise.
Gambians were disappointed earlier this year – in July and September – when the report’s release was postponed. It was widely expected that it would be released after the presidential elections slated for December. Therefore, it came as a surprise when it was announced that Barrow would receive the report before the polls.
Gaye Sowe, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, claimed the TRRC had ignored advice to release a summary of the recommendations.
“We (CSOs) advised the TRRC to make the recommendations available even a summary… But they chose this way.”
He said he was part of a group of CSO leaders who had met several times with some TRRC officials, and that he had made several presentations on the issue: “Nothing bars the TRRC from publicising their report… at least they can provide a summary of the recommendations,” he argued.
He was adamant that no law prevents the TRRC from making the report public “even tomorrow”. He based his conclusions on Section 30 of the TRRC Act, which states that within 30 days of receiving the report, the president shall submit a copy to the National Assembly, the United Nations Secretary-General, and such other regional and international organisations as the minister may determine.
Section 2 says the minister shall, in consultation with the executive secretary of the TRRC, make copies or summaries of it and make them widely available.
Section 3 states that the government shall, within six months, issue a White Paper containing its proposed plan on the implementation of the recommendations.
Sowe, who served on the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), which reviewed The Gambia’s laws and drafted the new constitution, said the TRRC situation was quite different.
“We wouldn’t do that at the CRC, but this is the law. Now, one can only rely on the new Access to Information law to ask for production of the documents,” he said.
Sirra Ndow, the country representative of the African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances, was not pleased by the turn of events.
“I am very disappointed that the TRRC commissioners did not make the report and recommendations public. Even though the Act gives the President 30 days to share the report with named entities, there is nowhere in the Act where it says explicitly that it cannot be made public,” she said.
She did not see the need for secrecy. “Victims have been waiting for decades for justice. The right thing to do would have been to share the findings and recommendations with them. Information is very important in their healing process.”
John Charles Njie, the chairperson of The Association of NGOs in The Gambia (TANGO), agreed with the sentiments. “In fact, it (report) should be made public to the population even before the UN Secretary-General or ECOWAS and the AU. The president should make it available to the National Assembly, as the people’s representatives, without delay, especially in the run-up to the elections,” he said.
He claimed that Barrow had more to gain than lose if he makes the contents of the report public as it constitutes the unveilling of his predecessor’s past abuses. “What does he have to lose by doing this? The objective was to make it known to the public. He should not waste time in doing so,” he added.
Njie also expressed concern about the participation of victims. Reiterating that the TRRC was established as a victim-led process, he said they should be involved in the preparation of the government’s White Paper.
In an earlier statement, TANGO had asked the government to disseminate the report to stakeholders within the periods stipulated in the TRRC Act.
“It is our fervent hope that even though our presidential election is a few days away, this process will not be derailed in any way or form. We urge the government to place the implementation of the recommendations as a high priority and demonstrate unflinching commitment in this endeavour. We further call on the government to employ a transparent, accountable and victim-oriented approach in its response to the implementation of the recommendations. Failure to implement the recommendations is not an option, as it will only serve to delay and derail the healing process, which in turn will undermine reconciliation and peace-building, which can only further threaten national unity and stability,” it said.
The TRRC was tasked with investigating and establishing an impartial historical record of the nature, causes, and extent of the violations and abuses of human rights committed from 1994 to January 2017, during Jammeh’s regime.
The commission held 22 three-week sessions of public hearings over a period of 871 days. It heard testimonies from 393 witnesses. Public hearings were also held in Jambur, Sibanor, and Essau. Other objectives included establishing and making known the fate or whereabouts of disappeared victims; providing victims an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations and abuses suffered; and granting reparations to victims in appropriate cases.
While presenting the report to the president, Lamin J. Sise, the chairman of the TRRC, said the commission had found that the violations and abuses resulted in the deaths of 240-250 Gambians and non-Gambians at the hands of the state or its agents.
“Acting in accordance with this provision, the commission has in its report identified and recommended for prosecution those most responsible for gross human rights violations and abuses committed against Gambians and non-Gambians alike between July 1994 and January 2017,” Sise said in his statement read at the Cabinet Room of the State House.
“The names of those individuals recommended for prosecution have not been placed in a sealed envelope but mentioned expressly in the relevant sections of the report,” he added.
Receiving the report, President Barrow said: “Although we have decided as a country to unearth the truth, our desire is to create a path for healing and reconciliation, with the goal of co-existing peacefully as Gambians. I am certain that, if we choose to do so, we can live together in peace and harmony, without any form of injustice, and nurture our young democracy in a stable nation where the rule of law prevails in the best interest of all.”
Before the report was released, there had been growing tension about the president’s commitment to his promise to ensure justice and reparations for the victims, especially as he softened his stance and started cooperating with Jammeh’s former political party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction, as he sought reelection on December 4. The delays in releasing the report served to further heighten the concerns.