Gambia: Many Jammeh loyalists still in high posts, says human rights defender

Gambia: Many Jammeh loyalists still in high posts, says human rights defender©AFP/Seyllou
Demonstration by victims of the Jammeh regime, April 2017
4 min 12Approximate reading time

A year after the fall of Yahya Jammeh’s bloody 22-year dictatorship, there is a wind of freedom blowing in The Gambia. But, at the same time, many Gambians are worried that the new government is trying to do “new things with old faces”. One of them is Fatou Jagne Senghor, a Gambian human rights defender who is West Africa regional director for the freedom of expression group Article 19. She spoke to JusticeInfo about her concerns, starting with how the secret service, formerly the feared National Intelligence Agency (NIA), is managed.

JusticeInfo: What was the role of the National Intelligence Agency in Yahya Jammeh’s repression?

Fatou Jagne Senghor: It is clear that for 22 years the NIA was at the heart of most of the human rights violations. Its name was recently changed (from National Intelligence Agency to State Intelligence Service). There have been some changes at management level since the former director was sacked, arrested and held in prison as judicial investigations were launched against him.

Were people afraid of the NIA?

Absolutely. It took people off at night and disappeared them. It had torture chambers in its premises but also in other places in the country. When you spoke of the NIA, everyone was afraid. And unfortunately, it spared no-one who was perceived to have a difference with the government or President, to whom the NIA answered directly. That includes political opponents, journalists, businessmen, public servants, university academics and members of the army. Really, the NIA played a very big role in our country’s repressive past.

Changing its name is just a gesture. Personally I think it should be dissolved, given that it has not proven useful throughout the years and especially because of the abuses it carried out. It is true that Gambians no longer live in fear, but they also feel resentment towards this agency. Some faces have changed, but the system remains. People who were working under Jammeh are still there. We think that out of respect for the victims and for the truth to be known, much stronger action is needed. Information needs to be protected and we need much more transparency, so that people can know what was done and why. It is on these points that we still feel frustrated.

So many former NIA people are still there?

  Fatou Jagne Sengh

Yes, many are still in their posts or other ones that are just as strategic. And that worries Gambians, because it seems there is much recycling of people from the Jammeh regime who are known to have supported him openly and been part of his system. This all generates frustration, and the reconciliation process expected in the coming months is likely to be difficult. It is true that we need to avoid a witch hunt, especially in a country as small as ours, but at the same time we will need to be careful to ensure that people who have committed mass human rights abuses cannot be systematically recycled in the new system without explaining to Gambians why. Otherwise the process will not be credible to Gambians. Why not wait until after the national reconciliation process to see who should be allowed to stay in post and who should not? The President himself said at the beginning of his mandate that he did not want to work with the former ministers and ambassadors of Jammeh because they were pillars of the old regime. Even if these people have something to offer, you can’t be minister or ambassador of a regime responsible for 22 years of oppression and return to your post afterwards as if nothing had happened. Jammeh was chased out through elections and we are in a transition phase, but Gambia is not a normal country. It is emerging from oppression and we cannot do as some other transition countries where everyone is kept in post. It was a major crisis, a country divided, on the brink of exploding. The perpetrators of crimes must be held to account in one way or another, even if it is only telling the truth and allowing the victims to know who was responsible for what. What we see today is this contrast between wanting reconciliation and justice and compromising with the former members of the old regime.

Do you think the new regime is not being courageous enough with regard to Jammeh’s former agents?

It’s difficult to say. But there is a lack of diligence on certain cases. You cannot have hundreds of people who represented the system in very senior posts, who opposed activists and media and who played prime roles in the repression, returning to strategic positions.  We increasingly think that if things don’t move on certain cases it’s because people are trying to do new things with old faces. You cannot count on people from the old regime to introduce reforms, especially reforms that will affect them.

You are thinking of whom, for example?

I am not going to name names. But there are quite a few ambassadors kept on. And many people are asking on what criteria they have been retained. Is it because of political or family ties? No one knows. And yet many of these people were pillars of the Jammeh system active in the looting of the country. When you see that, you think that there is a lack of vigilance, whereas the President promised to select the members of his administration carefully, saying there were enough qualified Gambians to fill the posts. What has changed in the meantime? No one knows. He has not explained that to the people. A transition means having competence but also the credibility and commitment to change. If for 22 years you have operated only on directives from the dictator, I am not sure you can really bring something new. But we have the impression it is these people who are being rewarded, and many Gambians cannot tolerate that.

There are two former generals under Jammeh who were recently arrested in Banjul. What do we know about them?

They are people who were very close to the ex-president and who left with him in the context of the negotiations that took place with ECOWAS and other institutions. And now, to everyone’s surprise, they have come back to the country without anyone realizing. That shows a big failure with regard to security. How did they manage to come back almost exactly a year later without them being arrested at the airport or the authorities being alerted or them being questioned on their motives? The ECOWAS forces are still here, but we need a clear security plan for the country for when they leave.